Voters suggest simpler absentee votingSimplifying Minnesota's absentee ballot procedure would have prevented many problems in the recently decided U.S. Senate race, a group of voters said Saturday in response to an eight-month delay in seating the state's second senator.
By: Don Davis, E/P State Capitol Bureau
MINNEAPOLIS – Simplifying Minnesota's absentee ballot procedure would have prevented many problems in the recently decided U.S. Senate race, a group of voters said Saturday in response to an eight-month delay in seating the state's second senator.
A "citizens' jury" decided that "eight months is an unacceptable length of time to have a vacant seat" and presented a series of recommendations, including simpler absentee voting, that it says would fix election law weak spots.
Top election officials from other states, gathered at a national secretaries of state conference in Minneapolis, agreed on many of their points.
Last Nov. 4's Senate race needed a recount of all 2.9 million votes and then Norm Coleman took the case to court, conceding to Al Franken only after the state Supreme Court unanimously ruled against him on June 30. Franken won by 312 votes.
Two Minnesota-based organizations, The Jefferson Center and Promoting Healthy Democracy, organized and funded what it called a citizens' jury to examine how to improve the process.
The major recommendation is to simplify absentee ballot laws and do a better job of explaining to voters how to cast an absentee ballot. Coleman's case hinged on what he called improperly rejected absentee ballots. Recount and court officials spent weeks looking over absentee ballots to decide if they should be counted.
The jury said the state should consider the controversial idea of requiring a photo identification or other type of ID for voter verification to obtain an absentee ballot.
The jury also recommended allowing early voting that does not require a reason. Current law requires a reason, such as being out of the area on election day, before a voter may obtain an absentee ballot. The Legislature would have to change the law, which has failed in the past.
Also controversial is a recommendation to move the state's primary election to a date earlier than its current September home. The jury said that September may be too late if a primary election recount is needed before the November election.
Randy Bolen of Two Harbors, one of 24 jury members selected at random, said he had no clue how complicated the absentee ballot process is.
Bolen said that he hopes legislators take the report seriously because it was drawn up "by the people around the state."
Paul Viss of Willmar said the jury's recommendations should "make the whole election process go more smoothly." The former Hancock school board member said both major political parties should agree with the recommendations.
"The public should know that voting is a serious business," Viss said. "They need to be careful with their ballots, especially with absentee ballots."
Marilyn Tinjum of Detroit Lakes said early voting using machines would be a good change because fewer mistakes were found with machine votes than those counted by hand.
While the jury's duty ended Saturday, five jurists said they will lobby to change state election law.
Many agreed with Melody Bolin of Duluth, who said: "I hadn't thought about it." But she expressed a willingness to continue working on election issues.
Those who are paid to think about elections say they have followed the Minnesota recount and court case.
Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed handled his own high-profile recount of the near-deadlocked 2004 governor's race.
For him, the big difference was the leader in the governor's race took office until recount officials and the courts sorted out the votes. In Minnesota, the Senate seat was vacant until all of that was settled.
Reed admitted that it is easier to leave a Senate seat open than the governor's job.
The first advice Reed had for Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, who called Reed when he realized how close the Senate contest would be, was to keep to keep things open to the public. He urged Ritchie to make sure the media, political parties and candidates were kept up to date every step of the way.
"The rumor mill just goes wild," he said.
California Secretary of State Debra Bowen said laws in her state and Minnesota are so different, there were few lessons she could learn from the Senate experience. But she did point to one: She wants a state law to require counties to let the public see ballots involved in a recount.
Ritchie made ballots available and the media showed them throughout the recount, something that Bowen said worked well.
One California county did that during a recount, and the public found a mistake that escaped elections officials, she said.
Bowen said the Minnesota recount could be an example of a national problem. As Coleman said that votes were tallied differently in different counties, Bowen said the same thing happens from state to state.
She said she is in a minority of secretaries of state who want a federal law requiring more election uniformity from state to state. As it is, 50 different laws apply to voters who are voting for president.
"It is very confusing for voters," Bowen said.
Like California, South Dakota's laws are different enough that a Minnesota-style Senate race probably would not happen there, Secretary of State Chris Nelson said.
However, one part of the Minnesota experience convinced him to try to change South Dakota law.
South Dakota elections officials now are told to write on a rejected absentee ballot envelope why it was not counted. But there is no state law requiring that, so Nelson wants to put it in statute.
Like other secretaries of state at the Minneapolis conference, Nelson said he was a constant observer of the Minnesota Senate election to see what he could learn.