Ritchie: Changes to Minnesota law should prevent voter-challenge shenanigans and conflicts

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It’s that time again. In the past couple of weeks, the thoughts of the left-lib blogosphere have turned back to fears of voter harassment and disenfranchisement schemes of the sort that made headlines in 2000 and 2004. The discussion is driven in part by a story that our sister site the Michigan Messenger broke on September 10, when reporter Eartha Jane Melzer wrote that one GOP county chair there was “planning to use a list of foreclosed homes to block people from voting in the upcoming election as part of the state GOP’s effort to challenge some voters on Election Day.” (Today Melzer updates that story with news that House Judiciary Committee Chair John Conyers has asked the Justice Department to investigate those claims.)

Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie says election laws here–specifically, the state’s same-day registration policy, along with a few key reforms enacted after conflicts over partisan voter challenges in the state’s 2004 election–make it much more difficult for partisans to game the system by constructing specious grounds for residency challenges or by mounting wholesale objections that serve to slow polling lines and discourage would-be voters.

I spoke to Ritchie late last Friday. Of the post-2004 reforms, he says, “First, challengers have to be from Minnesota and to show proof of residency. Second, challengers can only make challenges based on personal knowledge, and they must put those challenges in writing. This really changes it from being a kind of harassment. We knew that many of the challenges were being done in the past basically to make the lines move slowly so that some voters would get disgusted, or just have to run, because they’ve got to get the kids or get to work.

“But also [we knew] that challenges create a form of harassment or of personal anxiety that then drove some voters away from the polls. Now, with these new requirements, Minnesota law has made challenging an activity that we do not believe discourages or inappropriately keeps people from voting.”

Here’s a transcript of the whole interview.

Minnesota Independent: As we get closer to election day, worries about efforts to interfere with the exercise of voting rights are coming front and center again, as they have in the past few elections. Our sister site, Michigan Messenger, reported recently that Michigan were allegedly planning to use mortgage foreclosure rolls who have lost or are losing their homes in that state. (The Michigan GOP denies this.) What I wanted to ask you is, what’s the state of the law concerning the legitimate or illegitimate mounting of challenges to someone’s right to vote in Minnesota?

Mark Ritchie: We had a very bad situation a few years ago with challengers being flown in from Texas, the Department of Justice–there were some fistfights that broke out, and everywhere in the state there seemed to be discord that was created by these challengers. So the Legislature in 2005, on a bipartisan basis, changed Minnesota law to reform the process of challenges. In the 2006 election, the law changes seemed to solve some of the worst abuses and really, I think, made our situation and our election process the best in the country.

Here’s some of the things in our Minnesota law. First, challengers have to be from Minnesota and to show proof of residency. Second, challengers can only make challenges based on personal knowledge, and they must put those challenges in writing. This really changes it from being a kind of harassment. We knew that many of the challenges were being done in the past basically to make the lines move slowly so that some voters would get disgusted, or just have to run, because they’ve got to get the kids or get to work. But also [we knew] that challenges create a form of harassment or of personal anxiety that then drove some voters away from the polls.

Now, with these new requirements, Minnesota law has made challenging an activity that we do not believe discourages or inappropriately keeps people from voting.

MnIndy: So, for example, a scheme such as the one alleged in Michigan would be impossible here as I hear you describe the changes to the law.

Ritchie: I don’t know all the details of the Michigan scheme, but I can tell you that somebody could not just come in with a list of foreclosed homes and challenge voters in that way. But Minnesota also has a safety net. Problems can arise in elections from human error, computer mistakes–all kinds of things can happen. Our system of same-day registration means that if somebody has lost their home and had to move to a hotel or to some other residence, and they haven’t had time to get in and change their registration, they can come in on election day, register right there on the spot at their new [address]. They can have someone vouch for them, or maybe they’ve got a utility bill or some other means of showing they’re resident there.

So not only have we changed the law to stop the abuse of challenges. We also have the same-day registration safety net, which means that if someone, for any reason, doesn’t end up on a voter roster in a polling place, they can still register and vote and thus are not denied their constitutional right to vote just because they’ve lost their home to a foreclosure or some other legal process.

MnIndy: Do you expect partisan challengers to be out in force at polling places this year?

Ritchie: We expect all the major parties to have people in the polls. They typically do. We also expect those partisan challengers to be very polite, to follow our law, and to be helpful. We do not expect the kind of harassment, picking of fights, calling police–all the things we suffered in the past. But we will be monitoring this closely and making sure there’s no inappropriate behavior.

We have 4,000 polling places, 30,000 volunteers, community leaders and others serving as poll workers and election judges. It’s a big system, and we’ll be working hard to make sure it’s smooth and fast. We know it’ll be the biggest turnout in our lifetimes, so we know we’ll have a lot of new people at the polls. We want to make sure it’s as smooth as it can be and that no partisan challengers or partisan staff, or [people] who might attempt to disrupt the process as a mechanism for disempowering voters–we want to make sure none of that will happen in Minnesota.

MnIndy: What will your office be doing on election day in real time to make sure that any controversies or allegations of obstruction are dealt with in a timely way?

Ritchie: The procedure is normally that an election judge who has a question or sees a situation–unless they need to call the police–will call their city clerk or their county auditor about any problems. Then that clerk or auditor would contact our office for clarification or specific information about an issue. We will field hundreds, if not thousands, of calls during the course of the day. Many will be voters wondering where they vote or what they need to register on election day.

If there are some calls that have to do with disruptions, or behavior that’s potentially disenfranchising voters in a particular precinct, we will act quickly. We’ll be in touch with the county attorney or with law enforcement. Also, if there is a disruption that potentially closes or reduces access to a polling place, we can go to a district court judge and ask for an extension of the hours at that polling place. We don’t expect those kinds of problems. We have serious laws, and law enforcement is on top of this.

We don’t have a crystal ball, but we can be very responsive the minute we hear from anybody about problems.

MnIndy: Has Minnesota had issues with the kind of dirty tricks and obstructionism we’ve seen in other states in recent years? I’m thinking of things like spreading disinformation about where the polling places in an area are.

Ritchie: Notwithstanding Garrison Keillor’s admonition that we are way above average and squeaky clean, I think it’s generally accepted that Minnesota’s first election after statehood was stolen. And then it was stolen back. So we have our own history.

But in recent times, I think we’ve prided ourselves on addressing issues when they come up. So, for example, I live in Minneapolis. One year on my windshield, and those of many other cars, there was a flyer saying, it’s election day, and you vote at Sabathani Community Center. That didn’t seem unusual; Sabathani has a lot of community events. But it was absolutely never the polling place. It was Kingfield Community Center.

That kind of nuanced, deliberately deceptive misinformation does occur here. But Minnesota has taken some steps. When Congressman Keith Ellison was in the state Legislature, he led an effort that passed anti-deceptive practices laws, which provide a set of tools for election officials and law enforcement to go after those kinds of things. Now it’s a model that’s being looked at at the national level.

But we did have an incident before I became secretary of state in which there was an attempt to place posters inside polling places from Homeland Security arguing that polling places could be the target of terrorist attacks, and this is what a terrorist looks like and smells like. But the intention was to put “terror” and “terrorist” as the last idea in the mind of the voters before they walked into their blue stand and voted. This is an attempt to influence voting inside the polling place, and it’s absolutely prohibited by law.

It’s outrageous that Homeland Security or anyone else would be engaged in that kind of activity, and I have heard rumors that there’s something similar to this happening in Ohio. I’m only interested in what happens in Minnesota, in making sure we have totally free and fair elections here.

But we all are governed by one president, who is elected in 50 elections around the country. So when I hear of deceptive practices we’ve experienced here in Minnesota happening in other states, I’m concerned that we haven’t gotten to the bottom of all the deceptive practices yet. We have to be forever vigilant about these issues. Minnesota’s made important changes in the law regarding deceptive practices and challengers, and I think our law is much, much better. But we have to stay vigilant always, and that’s my intention.

MnIndy: You referred a moment ago to “the turnout of our lifetime.” How high a turnout are you expecting, and are polling places being staffed up in light of that?

Ritchie: Our goal is “80 in ‘08.” Eighty percent of eligible voters. And yes, we will have a marginal increase [in elections personnel]–keep in mind, we start out high–but we also know that any increase to that level will include a lot of new voters and young voters, and voters who haven’t voted for many years. They’ll need extra assistance, perhaps in getting registered, but also in the procedures. How do the machines work, where do you pick your ballot up?

All of the county auditors and city clerks and township officials have been thinking about this challenge since February, when the caucuses had such huge turnout. They’ve been preparing by recruiting extra election judges and poll workers. Minnesota has special laws that allow 16- and 17-year-olds to be poll worker trainees. They can’t do everything, but they can provide important helpers in the process. We’re also making sure we’ve got adequate numbers of ballots.

Our citizens are also aware of this coming crush of voters, and I see a big uptick in people registering early, and people choosing the vote-by-mail option, which we used to call absentee voting. Folks are calling to say, when can I go to my city clerk or county auditor’s office and vote in person? That will start on October 3. Lots of people are ordering those vote-by-mail ballots as well. All this can help reduce the lines on election day itself.