Bill would bring provisional ballot system to Minn.

Published 10:27 am Tuesday, March 7, 2017

By Brian Bakst FM

Minnesota is one of only a few places where provisional voting doesn’t exist. In fact, 46 states have some sort of standby system that keeps the ballots of challenged voters separate, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

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In most states, it’s done if a person’s name doesn’t appear on the rolls. Other states temporarily hold ballots back if a valid ID isn’t presented, if someone who requested an absentee ballot shows up on Election Day, or if a poll watcher raises a challenge.

In Minnesota, people who are challenged can take an oath on the spot, answer questions from an election judge, get a ballot and vote. It’s what’s called self-certification.

“That would go into the ballot box and not be retrievable if later found to be incorrect. You could not pull that ballot out of the ballot box,” said Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, who is spearheading an effort to change that.

The former Minnesota secretary of state has proposed keeping ballots of challenged voters separate.

“The most important thing here is through provisional ballots we help protect the integrity of the ballot box for all the eligible voters while giving every opportunity for someone who makes a claim, ‘No, I am eligible’ and gives us a little time to check that out.”

Under current law, registrations are flagged for people on lists produced by corrections and public safety officials and for people declared legally incompetent by a court.

Kiffmeyer’s bill includes language where registered voters on the challenged lists would get notice of their standing, and they could appeal prior to the election.

Those who persist and seek a provisional ballot would have their status automatically reviewed. They would learn if their ballot was rejected within 10 weeks of the election.

While the bill is advancing in the Senate, its fate is murky. Gov. Mark Dayton and many of his predecessors have demanded that election law changes be made with bipartisan consensus. Kiffmeyer’s bill squeaked through its first committee on a party-line vote. It cleared a second panel Tuesday on a 5-4 vote, with all Republicans in favor and Democrats opposed.

Dayton’s spokesperson said the bill as it now stands doesn’t meet the DFLer’s rule for election-related bills.

“The governor’s long-held position is that any change to election law must have broad bipartisan support, to protect the integrity of our election system and serve the best interests of all Minnesotans,” said spokesperson Sam Fettig. “Currently, this proposal does not meet that standard.”

DFL Secretary of State Steve Simon opposes the bill. He says provisional balloting would add expense for election administrators and possible delays to vote counting.

Simon said the databases used to verify a voter’s status aren’t perfect. In a letter this month to lawmakers, Simon wrote his office “works hard to ensure that the data matching is accurate but unfortunately, we know there are voters who have been erroneously marked as a felon and have had their registration challenged in error.”

Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, questions whether it’s prudent to introduce such a notable change to the state’s election system without clear evidence of a widespread voter fraud problem.

“It is so exceedingly rare that to set up a whole provisional balloting system to address a problem that doesn’t exist is just a waste of resources and sets up one more barrier to people voting.”

Andy Celik has a different set of concerns. The executive director of the Minnesota Voters Alliance doesn’t think the Senate plan goes far enough.

He wouldn’t mind seeing a provisional ballot system applied to challenges lodged at polling places for people who register on Election Day, too. Celik says Minnesota’s experience with close elections shows that there can be little room for error.

“There was a mayor’s race in northern Minnesota a few years ago that was a tie. They had to flip a coin. So, we think that the Legislature has to strike a balance between allowing everybody to vote who is eligible and to prevent ineligible voting.”