Legislature passes online voter registration, reinstating system ruled illegal by district court judge

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Gov. Mark Dayton signed online voter registration into law Tuesday after the bill garnered vast bipartisan support from legislators.

Minnesota voters can now register online, but will still have to cast ballots at local precincts. The Minnesota Senate voted 41-24 to approve the online system Tuesday after the House passed the same bill by an overwhelming margin of 129-2 several weeks ago.

The new law comes one day after a district court deemed Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie’s earlier incarnation of online voter registration illegal.

Minnesota citizens could sign up to vote online since September of last year, when Ritchie created the web tool that more than 3,600 voters used to register.

But on Monday, Ramsey County District Judge John Guthmann ruled that Ritchie didn’t have the legal authority to create the online registration tool and mandated he immediately shut it down.

Tuesday’s legislation doesn’t override the judge’s decision, but is rather a “minor hiccup,” said Rep. Steve Simon, DFL–Hopkins, who authored the House bill.

Online voter registration will be taken down Tuesday evening and then restored Wednesday morning when the law comes into effect, Office of the Secretary of State Spokesman Nathan Bowie said. He said the legislation made no changes to Ritchie’s online voter registration tool and will retain all those who registered.

“An overwhelming bipartisan majority of state lawmakers moved beyond the legal dispute about process and instead embraced the substance of this reform,” Simon said in a press release.

Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Newport, who authored the Senate’s version of the bill, said the law process was expedited because the Senate kept the House bill’s language, so a conference committee wasn’t needed.

Simon said the Legislature’s action provides the state with a common-sense policy that strengthens Minnesotans’ ability to participate in the democratic
process.

Opponents of the bill, however, were concerned about the security risks that come with using an online registration system.

Minnesota joins 19 other states that offer online voter registration, and Simon said that makes him confident that the process is safe. He said he hasn’t heard of any of those states experiencing a data breach, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen.

“But to me, that’s not a good enough reason to vote against the bill,” he said.

Simon and Sieben said they hope the law will encourage more Minnesotans to vote.

University of Minnesota associate political science professor Elizabeth Beaumont said many believe online voter registration does tend to expand the turnout of populations — including students — that are typically less likely to vote.

“A lot of people are interested in online [voter registration] … because [of] the idea that it could get a younger, more representative group out to vote,” she said.

Beaumont said online voter registration is a positive move to coax students to vote, but said same-day
registration is even more effective. Minnesota adopted same-day registration in 1974, allowing voters to register at their polling location on Election Day.

“You register online, but it’s still another day when you have to show up and vote,” she said. “Same-day is more streamlined for people who don’t have a lot of time.”

Beaumont said it’s hard to predict, but she thinks the new law will improve voter turnout in Minnesota. She said the fact that the state has had same-day registration for years makes online registration slightly less important, though she’s certain the new law will cut costs and trim lines at the polls.

“I just think that it’s a good day for Minnesota,” Sieben said. “Now and into the future, Minnesotans will have the added convenience of being able to register to vote online.”