Minnesota elections are already a national leader, but could they be better?

Marisa Helms // Published November 14, 2008 in Minnesota Post
For the most part, Minnesota has a strong elections process, and the state even leads the nation in some areas, such as same-day registration and the use of paper ballots and automatic audits.

But, is there a better way to run Minnesota's elections?

Election watchers around the state have been weighing in on a lot of election issues – from a few minor tweaks, such as moving the state's primary earlier than September, to major changes, such as extending the time when citizens can cast their votes, requiring a photo ID in order to vote, and moving to a system called Instant Runoff Voting (IRV).

Here's a look at some of the high-profile issues, starting with the most controversial.

Instant Runoff Voting
Some see the recount in the Senate race between Norm Coleman and Al Franken as a prime example of why the state should move to IRV. Lots of people seem to like it. But there are others who abhor it and hope never to see a ranked ballot in the state of Minnesota – or anywhere else in the United States, for that matter.

IRV is a process in which the electorate ranks candidates by preference: first choice, second choice, third choice, etc. If a candidate is clearly determined with a majority (50 percent plus one) of first-place votes, then he or she wins. If not, the instant runoff is triggered. The candidate with the fewest first-place votes is eliminated, and those votes are redistributed to citizens' second choice. If the first redistribution doesn't produce a majority winner, the process continues by eliminating the next lowest candidate and redistributing those votes until one candidate reaches a majority.

Proponents of IRV say it's a better way to run elections, especially when third-party candidates are on the ballot.

"Many people in the DFL and Republican parties wish the Green, Independence and Libertarian parties would go away," says Jack Uldrich, an Independence Party member who has run for U.S. House and Senate seats. "But we're not going away. Especially here in Minnesota. The question becomes how to create a system that allows us to flourish, and to elect people by majority. The best solution is IRV."

Its proponents argue that the current plurality system presumes just two candidates in a race, and when there are more, such as the Coleman-Franken Senate race that also included the IP's Dean Barkley, the system breaks down.

"What a debacle," says Jeanne Massey of FairVote Minnesota, the local branch of a national organization pushing IRV.

"If a significant third-party candidate gets cast aside as a 'spoiler,' the message doesn't get through," says Massey, "And voters lose out."

She says voters want and deserve choice. But in the current election system, voters don't always choose their preferred candidate "because they worry their vote is wasted or it will help elect their least favorite candidate," says Massey.

IRV would remedy the spoiler effect, she says, because every vote is counted. Massey also believes it would promote more civil elections.

"Negative campaigning is a hallmark of two-way races," says Massey. "With IRV, candidates stay on the issues because they want as many first-choice votes as they can get, but also want second-choice votes. So they don't go negative because they don't want to alienate voters by attacking their opponents."

While IRV could be seen as a benefit to the Independence and Green parties that regularly run candidates in Minnesota, one of the state's major parties, the DFL Party also supports it, adopting IRV as part of its platform earlier this year.

"It allows voters to express their preferences more honestly," says DFL Party Chairman Brian Melendez. "It's better to have an outcome with a majority vote, instead of being stuck with electing the minority candidate."

Melendez and others point out that the choice of Minnesota's governor has not been decided by a majority of the electorate in the past three election cycles (Ventura, with  37 percent in 1998, and  Pawlenty, with 44 percent in 2002 and 47 percent in 2006).

IRV is used in Australia and Ireland and in a small handful of U.S. cities, including San Francisco, Cambridge, Mass., and Burlington, Vt., and several counties, most recently Pierce County, Wash. FairVote's Massey says several more cities are scheduled to implement IRV, including Berkeley, Calif.;  Aspen, Colo.; and of course, Minneapolis (that is, if a lawsuit doesn't stop it from moving forward).

In 2006, Minneapolis approved IRV with 65 percent voter approval. It's supposed to go into effect for next year's city elections, but the Minnesota Voters Alliance is suing the city of Minneapolis to stop it.

The group's director, Andy Cilek, says the only reason IRV passed in Minneapolis and in other municipalities is because "the bureaucratic elite shoved it down the throats of the people."

Cilek says IRV is "fatally flawed," because it violates both Minnesota law and the state Constitution. Cilek says he's confident his group will take its case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, if necessary.

"IRV puts blindfolds on the voters," he says. "(With IRV) voters don't know if they're helping or hurting the cause of their favorite candidate. The court has said we do right in upholding the right of the citizen to cast a vote for the candidate of his choice unimpaired by additional votes by others."

Cilek also believes IRV is unconstitutional because it allows some people in effect to vote more than once. For example, if you pick the winning candidate, you get one vote, but if you choose a losing candidate, then your second-choice, and maybe even third-choice votes also might be counted.

The alliance's case against the city could be heard as early as next week in Hennepin County court.

Other cities in Minnesota, particularly St. Paul and Duluth, are looking at IRV. St. Paul is waiting for the outcome of the Minneapolis case before moving ahead with plans to put it on the ballot for voters to decide.

FairVote's Massey says IRV has survived constitutional challenges in other states, and she expects Minneapolis' IRV measure to prevail, too.

Legislative issues could again include photo IDs
While IRV plays out in the courts, there are a few other ideas lawmakers could be wrestling with next session.

House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, says requiring photo ID for voting is "a big deal for me and my caucus."

Seifert says the razor-thin margin in the Coleman-Franken race underscores the importance of ballot security. He says polls show that more than 80 percent of Minnesotans approve of requiring photo IDs.

"People expect it," says Seifert. "You have to use ID to get on an airplane, or buy a glass a beer. You even need a photo ID to get into the Barack Obama celebration party. It's a ludicrous argument to be opposed to that simple reform."

Previous efforts to pass such legislation have failed. Republican proposals that narrowly passed the House in 2001 and 2006 were never taken up by the Senate. In 2006, the proposal also included requiring proof of citizenship in order to register to vote.

Seifert says he's nervous about reports from other states alleging voter fraud that surfaced during the presidential campaign.

"There were reports of ACORN[the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now]  almost bribing people to vote a certain way," says Seifert. "And they say ACORN double- and triple-registered people."

"There's just a lot of skepticism about how secure voting is, and that people are who they say they are," he says.

Seifert says passing a photo ID law this coming session is a "high priority" for House Republicans.

"We're going to push the envelope on this and see if there are ways we can negotiate with the Democrats to get a simple reform or two," he says.

But Seifert's "simple reform" may have a tough time in the DFL-controlled House.

Speaker of the House Margaret Anderson Kelliher (DFL-Minneapolis) says her caucus won't support it. "We have a fundamental disagreement on this," she says.

Kelliher notes that voters in Minnesota already must swear an oath that they are of legal age and show proof that they live at the place of residence listed on their registration. The state, she notes, has penalties in place if someone's not telling the truth.

"Republicans don't like same-day registration and they don't like to make it easier for people to vote," says Kelliher. "(Seifert) is following the party line on this issue."

She sees a photo ID requirement as an impediment to voting, particularly for the poor and the elderly.

 She cites, for example, the grandfather of one of her constituents – a World War II veteran. "He no longer drives and doesn't have a state ID," says Kelliher. "I don't think he should be disenfranchised to vote. There's just no evidence that this is an issue in Minnesota. We have safe and secure elections with very high participation."

'Convenience voting' measures gain in popularity
Kelliher says voting should be as easy as possible and favors "convenience voting" measures.

Minnesota leads the country in convenience voting in the sense that it is one of just seven states that allows for same-day voter registration. It also allows absentee voting up to 30 days before Election Day (by mail or in person) for people who have a legitimate excuse for being away from the polling place, such as travel, illness or religious reasons.

Some find the excuse requirement impractical and want to remove it and create the infrastructure to allow early voting.

A bill last biennium calling for early voting and no-excuse absentee voting was vetoed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie says he hopes the governor will change his mind and expects to see a similar bill introduced again.

"The process of elections is being adjusted to meet the demands of modern busy life in most other states," says Ritchie. "And in this state, and in editorials, the voters have said out loud and with actions that they want to be able to vote, and they need a system of elections that allows them to vote in a way that works with their life."

Early voting is gaining in popularity nationwide. Thirty-two states allow no-excuse pre-Election Day in-person voting – either early voting on a voting machine or in-person absentee voting. States with such early voting set up centers or "super-precincts" 15 to 30 days before the election.

The number choosing early votingmore than doubled  in the states where it's allowed, according to the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College in Portland, Ore.

The center's director, Paul Gronke, says in 2000, 14 percent of Americans cast early ballots. This election, the number is 30 percent to 33 percent.

The center's reporting shows that the largest percentage of early in-person voters – 75 percent – came in Colorado, North Carolina and New Mexico. "And Oregon has fully gone to a vote-by-mail system, and all but two counties in Washington state have vote by mail," he says.

Soon, every state, including Minnesota, may be forced to have some form of early voting. Gronke says pending federal legislation sponsored by Hillary Rodham Clinton and others would mandate no-excuse absentee voting and a 15-day early-voting period nationwide for all federal elections.

Seifert, however, says Minnesota's current same-day registration and absentee procedures make it "pretty convenient right now (for voters). If you vote absentee, you have to list a reason, but it's a pretty open process. You check a box saying you're absent from the precinct, no questions asked."

Seifert says he's always been skeptical of same-day registration and feels that it's open to abuse. He cites Carleton College as an example of potential problems but doesn't accuse voters there of wrongdoing.

"Seventy-seven percent of Carleton students are not from Minnesota," says Seifert. "With same-day registration, how can you be 100 percent sure they're voting in Minnesota and not in another state as well?"

Earlier primaries?
Moving the primary date earlier than September is probably the only reform that has bipartisan support.

Secretary of State Ritchie says running a primary and general election eight weeks apart is difficult, especially for overseas voters.

"We need more days between the primary and the general election," he says. "For soldiers [living overseas], it's about having the capacity to get their ballots out and back within narrow timeframes. Another 30 days would really help."

An earlier date also would be better for candidates who may have just gone through a grueling primary and need more time to prepare for the general election.

"Most of our time in the process is spent giving parties eight months for choosing the partisan nominees," says the DFL's Melendez. "Then the voters have just eight weeks to get to know the candidates. That does not make sense."

For some reason, even though it comes up nearly every legislative session, moving the primary day has never gained enough traction to become law.

That could be because parties can't agree on which month the primary should move to. June and August are the two perennially choices.

Speaker Kelliher favors June: "Probably early June would be best when school is still in session. August in Minnesota doesn't make sense with state fairs and going to the cabin. June makes a lot more sense."

Seifert, saying June is too early, prefers August, before the State Fair.

"The candidate filing deadline is mid-July," he says. "If the primary is in June, the filing would be in March, probably. I have to recruit 134 candidates. It's not wise to frontload too early, to be registering for office while the Legislature is in session. It's better to be filing in the summer, rather than while debating at Capitol. It's too messy. August is better."

Minnesota a leader in auditing and paper ballots
Minnesota has a national reputation for running fair and clean elections. Measures that enhance that reputation include one of the state's newer laws, which requires random election audits.

In 2004, the Legislature required automatic auditing after each election for gubernatorial, presidential, congressional and U.S. Senate races. The law went into effect for the 2006 election, and the audit for the 2008 election is being carried out right now in every county.

"Post-election auditing is essential for independent verification of outcomes," says Mark Halvorson, Minnesota director of Citizens for Election Integrity, a nonpartisan group that helps states pass audit laws.

Halvorsen says only 17 states have audit laws and most are inadequate, compared with Minnesota's, which requires that at least two randomly selected precincts be audited in every county (and a greater number of precincts in cities with larger populations). The audit must be done by hand recount, which is made easier by Minnesota's use of paper ballots.

"We'd really like to see a model similar to Minnesota's exported to other states," he says.

Two years ago, the audit law's author, Rep. Bill Hilty, DFL-Finlayson, helped strengthen it by requiring the paper ballot to be the official ballot in terms of results (as opposed to computer records). It's a small but crucial change to the legislation, he says.

"You can mark the paper ballot, and that does constitute a very clear record of a voter's intent," says Hilty. "The scanner has to be programmed. It's a piece of hardware, and there are ways it can fail."

Hilty says he could see some additional tweaks to the audit legislation this session that would expand the audit to constitutional office races, with an option for state legislative races.