ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said he'll continue to accept online voter registration applications, even though lawmakers and Gov. Mark Dayton say it should've been okayed first by the state legislature.
A total of 1,553 new voters have gone online on the Secretary of State's website to apply, during the first month of the system launched by Ritchie's staff. Other voters have accessed their voter registration information and updated it, also via their home computers.
"The experience of some people is that the voter registration form never got to the county, or it didn't get typed in properly, or whatever, it just hadn't worked for them," Ritchie said of the traditional paper registration application form.
"And in this system, they're in control, it's in their own privacy and they get immediate response, that yes, you're now registered."
Ritchie said he believed he was justified legally by a law passed in the year 2000 in Minnesota that authorized electronic signatures for vendors and others doing business with the State of Minnesota.
He said the online system also saves time and money for county elections offices around the state, where workers received the paper application forms and then must enter the data by hand into their computer databases.
Ritchie added that some voters would rather deal directly with the government, instead of political parties, contractors and other organizations that collect registration forms.
But several state lawmakers have written Ritchie asking that he suspend the online registration system until the legislature has a chance to review it. They assert he lacks the authority to add the online option until and unless the legislature passes a bill expressing adding it to the state's elections laws.
State Sen. David Hann and Scott Newman told Ritchie they're concerned about the privacy of personal data submitted to the Secretary of State's office, and said they're unaware if what measures, if any, exist to protect that information.
"Legislators and citizens alike should have their questions answered in a formal legislative hearing, before implantation of such a structural change in our election process," Sen. Hann and Sen. Newman, both Republicans, wrote to Ritchie, in a letter dated Oct. 21.
They noted that Minn. House researcher Matt Gehring took issue with Ritchie's interpretation of the Uniform Electronic Transaction Act. He said one shouldn't conclude that accepting electronic signatures is the same as legalizing web-based applications for voter registration.
Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles said that Gehring's analysis carried weight because of his nonpartisan status, and his conclusion was compelling. Nobles said he'd like to review the Secretary of State's online security systems at some point in the future.
Hann and Newman also said they're worried that legal issues will arise in the 2014 election if that online system is stopped by the courts, and those web-based registrations are invalidated by a judge.
Ritchie said the information voters submit on the online template is the exact same data voters provide on the paper form. And he said all the applications are verified using the same level of scrutiny.
He said political parties routinely purchase the data from those electronic voter rolls, but they're protected against hacking and tampering.
"Our office for 30 years has been the place for the statewide voter registration system, and in 30 years we've never seen a problem with the integrity of that information."
Ritchie contends the latest addition -- online registration -- is consistent with other moves he's made to make it easier for military members to vote from overseas.
But some of those reforms -- moving of the primary from September to August, and no-excuse absentee balloting -- were approved first by the legislature and signed by Gov. Dayton.
Sen. Katie Sieben and Rep. Scott Simon, the Democrats who control the elections committees at the State Capitol, agree there should be a hearing. They both support the idea of passing a law during in 2014 to authorizes online registration.
But Sen. Sieben and Rep. Simon both told KARE Wednesday they don't see the need to suspend the online registration process prior to the 2014 session, now that Ritchie has already launched it.
Ritchie said lawmakers and others who object to his system have the right to seek a remedy in the courts, pointing out he prevailed against a lawsuit that sought to close his office during the 2011 state government shutdown.
His office was also used by a group that wanted to stop Minnesota's same-day registration system, based on the fact that those newly registered voters' addresses and residency status can't be verified before their votes are counted.
"We prevailed in that case because the judge didn't think our same-day registration system violated the state constitution," Ritchie remarked.
"And so the judicial branch is there. If somebody has a disagreement or a different point of view, there's a nice clean way that that gets settled."
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