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The shape of elections to come

Tim Nelson // Published January 9, 2009 in Minnesota Public Radio

St. Paul, Minn. — The DFL-led committee heard from Secretary of State Mark Ritchie and a half dozen other election watchers, who offered a long list of solutions to the controversies that continue to roil the undecided election.

First among them was a Supreme Court decision in December to allow the campaigns of Democrat Al Franken and Republican Norm Coleman to disqualify hundreds of uncounted absentee ballots.

"I just found it incredible that political campaigns had the opportunity to tell someone that their ballot could not be opened," said committee chairwoman Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope. "To me, that's a government function."

Rest called the ballot challenges permitted by the state's Supreme Court "mistaken."

Both DFL and Republican legislators have also questioned the composition of the state's Canvassing Board, noting that service on the board disqualifies Supreme Court judges from hearing the case in court. Rest suggested the law might be changed to put appeals court judges on the board instead.

But while those suggestions have met with bipartisan support, other suggestions at today's hearings may face considerable political opposition.

Carolyn Curti, elections administrator in Roseville, said there were about 90 rejected absentee ballots in her city, many of them involving voter registration problems. She told the committee its should consider automatic voter registration.

The Legislature passed a bill to institute automatic registration last session, only to have it vetoed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Keesha Gaskins, head of the Minnesota League of Women Voters, suggested that the state add bar codes to absentee ballots to allow voters to track their ballots -- a service much like express shipping companies offer now.

Gaskins said it would make for more transparency and accountability as ballots are sent back and forth, and noted that many of the absentee ballots are already barcoded.

Others suggested eliminating the requirement that an absentee voter get the signature of a witness to the ballot, and allowing voters to get ballots via e-mail, or even download them from county election Web sites.

That, too, met with some concerns among Republicans. Assistant minority leader Joe Gimse of Willmar, noted testimony that there were more votes than voters in 25 precincts across the state. He said changes that don't protect the integrity of the vote weren't improvements.

The recent recount of the U.S. Senate race may also be giving Republicans pause. In a closely watched count of wrongly rejected absentee ballots last weekend, Franken got 51 percent of the votes, compared to about one-third of the votes for his Republican opponent. That would suggest a political risk for Republicans if absentee voting widens.

Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Newport, noted that state and local governments simply aren't going to have the money to make changes in elections that involve significant new spending.

She said she hoped a proposal for early voting -- allowing voters to come in, mark a ballot, have it counted and make sure it's accepted on the spot -- might meet with some bipartisan support.