As early voting swells, no change in vetting new registrants

Published 10:45 am Friday, October 21, 2016

ST. PAUL — As early voting surges in Minnesota following the state’s relaxation of requirements to vote absentee, opponents of the state’s same-day registration say election officials are missing a chance to safeguard the process against fraud.

Voting began at early voting centers and by mail nearly a month ago, and the same-day registration policy that has helped power the state’s nation-leading voter turnout still applies. More than 5,500 ballots submitted as of Wednesday were from newly registered voters, according to data from the secretary of state’s office.

No matter how early they’re submitted, those registrations are treated as though the new voter walked into a polling place on Nov. 8: They won’t be verified or entered in the statewide database until after Election Day. To opponents of same-day registration who feel it opens the process to fraud, the lapse is confounding.

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“The voter registration application should be processed and should be verified prior to that ballot being opened,” said Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, a Republican and former secretary of state. “They sit there and they don’t do anything with them.”

Minnesota is among 13 states, plus the District of Columbia, that allows same-day voter registration.

Absentee ballots from previously unregistered voters have always gone unchecked until after the election, but Minnesota’s pool this year will be larger. That’s because the state did away with a requirement that absentee voters demonstrate a reason they couldn’t vote in person on election day.

The state has already collected nearly 150,000 ballots. In Ramsey County, ballots are coming in twice as fast as the last presidential cycle in 2012.

Secretary of State Steve Simon said most of those early ballots come from registered voters. Less than 4 percent are from same-day registrants so far, he said.

Simon, a former lawmaker who played a key role in passing the 2013 law, said it made sense to handle the surge of new early voters the same way the state always has.

“We’ve just expanded the scope of who can use early voting,” said Simon, a Democrat who took office in 2015. “This is the way that best suits, all things considered, the stresses on elections administrators.”

With little evidence of intentional voter fraud in Minnesota, he said that laws that encourage voter participation like same-day registration and early voting outweigh the time delay in processing the applications.

As they do on Election Day, election judges double-check registration forms at early voting centers to ensure everything is filled out correctly. But county elections officials don’t check those forms against existing public records — like driver’s license database — to root out any potential discrepancies that could make a voter ineligible until after the ballot is counted.

Kiffmeyer said she thinks that work that should be done on the front end. She suggested a combination of using provisional ballots — which aren’t officially tallied until after a voters’ registration is verified — and implementing electronic registration at polling places to immediately process registrations on Election Day or ahead of time.

“It’s amazing that anyone thinks that couldn’t be done,” she said.

In Ramsey County, elections chief Joe Mansky said processing applications after Election Day has worked just fine. The larger pool of early voters hasn’t changed that.

“It’s not a big deal,” he said.