ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Minnesota’s new online voter registration system must be shut down because it was improperly established, a judge ordered Monday. But the Legislature could quickly turn it back on.
Ramsey County District Judge John Guthmann said in his ruling that Democratic Secretary of State Mark Ritchie was wrong to set it up without legislative permission. He ruled that Ritchie must close the system down by midnight Tuesday. Any registrations previously made through the site will be valid.
The ruling comes in a lawsuit brought by two conservative groups and a collection of Republican legislators, who said they deserved a chance to help shape the portal.
Mindful of the possible ruling, the Legislature has been considering bills this session to allow online registration to continue by putting in place security standards and anti-fraud provisions.
“If the Legislature believed that the existing online voter registration tool was already legally authorized, there would be no need for new legislation,” Guthmann wrote in his order.
The Senate postponed a planned Monday vote for a day to give lawmakers time to digest the ruling; they’ll vote on the House-approved version Tuesday. Gov. Mark Dayton could have a bill on his desk by Tuesday, limiting the outage.
“Thanks to legislative action, we’re about to revive a common-sense policy that strengthens Minnesotans’ ability to participate in our democratic process,” said House Elections Committee Chairman Steve Simon, DFL-Hopkins.
Minnesota elections officials argue the technology should result in people registering earlier, reducing polling place lines caused by the state’s Election Day registration option.
People using the system must present verifiable identification data, such as a driver’s license or Social Security number, in addition to birthdates and addresses; applications are checked in a similar fashion as before. Advocates say there are fewer avenues for errors because administrators don’t have to input voter information into a database.
Since its September launch, 3,631 people registered through the website launched by Ritchie’s office. Guthmann said he wasn’t passing judgment on the merits of the system or security measures put in place, confining the ruling to only the process for setting it up.
Ritchie’s lawyers had argued another state law allowing electronic alternatives to paper forms when conducting government businesses enabled him to create the registration website. He said in a written statement that he disagreed with the ruling but was glad the Legislature was acting to make the site permanent.
“This tool has already proven its ability to reduce tax payer costs by modernizing the work of local government,” Ritchie said. “Online registration has been embraced by Minnesota voters who appreciate the security and ease of the process.”
Dan McGrath, who runs the Minnesota Majority group that had sued, applauded the ruling and said a change of this magnitude should have been authorized by lawmakers in the first place.
“This will pave the way for proper legislation to bring about a system that voters can have confidence in that’s been publicly vetted,” McGrath said of the ruling.
Among the features of the bills before lawmakers are security checks to make sure there aren’t suspicious patterns, safeguards to make sure Social Security numbers or other sensitive data are kept private and steps to prosecute people who submit fraudulent registrations.
Minnesota has been one of 18 states with online registration, with more moving in that direction.
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