By Don Davis
Conservative groups and Republican legislators are taking Minnesota Democratic Secretary of State Mark Ritchie to court over an online voter registration system he launched.
They say Ritchie exceeded his constitutional authority. Their attorney, Erick Kaardal of Minneapolis, called the secretary “a serial violator of the Constitution,” referring to lawsuits that resulted in the Minnesota Supreme Court saying he improperly renamed two proposed constitutional amendments last year.
Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, said that he and others waging the court fight are not against online voter registration, just that Ritchie began the system without legislative approval.
“It could be the best thing since sliced bread, it could be the worst thing since the plague,” Drazkowski said, but he will not know until the Legislature examines the plan.
Many Republicans and Democrats alike say they like online voter registration, but Ritchie did not have specific authority to start the process. They say he needs to receive legislative authority to do so.
Ritchie, however, has said a decade-old law authorizing electronic signatures is all the permission he needs and has rejected several calls to stop online registration.
Minnesota Majority and the Minnesota Voters Alliance, long opponents to Ritchie’s election efforts, were joined in the suit by GOP state Reps. Drazkowski, Mary Franson of Alexandria, Ernie Leidiger of Mayer and Jim Newberger of Becker.
Ritchie’s office refused to directly comment on the lawsuit, but continued to defend the late-September action.
“Online voter registration follows a series of other digital services we have introduced to help Minnesotans, while saving taxpayers’ money,” Ritchie spokesman Nathan Bowie said. “Thousands have already benefited from these tools and we look forward to continuing to serve our citizens with the most efficient government possible.”
Minnesota Majority President Dan McGrath said the voter registration system could be suspended immediately.
“Just about everyone, from the governor, the non-partisan legislative auditor, editorial boards around the state, the chairs of the House and Senate elections committees and concerned Minnesotans are in agreement that this process should have gone through the legislature,” he said.
One specific concern he cited is what Ritchie’s office may do with data it collects.
Drazkowski said that since Ritchie has not changed his stand in the slightly more than a month since he instituted the program, the group filing the suit had no recourse other than the courts.
The court action asks Ritchie to prove he has legal authority to take the action he did and show that he has not usurped legislative power. If he cannot to that, the action seeks to end online voter registration until the Legislature can consider it.
The court filing comes too late to make any changes in Tuesday’s elections, but Kaardal said that Ritchie’s action could lead to lawsuits in close contests. He said that he represents groups in South Washington County and Pelican Rapids school districts that could file lawsuits if Tuesday’s elections appear to be influenced by voters who may have registered online.