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Secretary of State Mark Ritchie discusses election issues in Bemdiji

BEMIDJI - Secretary of State Mark Ritchie visited Beltrami County on Monday to talk election issues, and Beltrami County Auditor-Treasurer Kay Mack spent Tuesday in St. Paul talking absentee ballots.

Ritchie met Monday at the Beltrami County Administration Building with election officials from Beltrami, Clearwater and Itasca counties to thank them for their work in the last primary and general elections and to gather election reform ideas for the 2009 session of the Legislature.

"We are developing election reform ideas for consideration by the 2009 legislature based upon the experiences of election officials over the past three months. These reforms will attempt to address some of the problems you may have encountered with absentee ballots and other recount issues," Jim Gelbmann, assistant secretary of state, said in an e-mail to participants.

"Before we finalize the reform proposals, we want to receive input from the local officials who are on the front lines of election administration," said Gelbmann. "Your input and ideas are essential to crafting a successful election reform package. This meeting will give you an opportunity to tell Mark what laws and rules may be obsolete and identify new ideas for improving election administration."

Ritchie earlier this month already announced a 2009 legislative agenda to enhance three core areas of election administration, including streamlining Minnesota's current voter registration process, simplifying absentee ballot voting, and improving the administration of recounts.

"I feel extremely fortunate to have inherited an elections system that is the gold standard for the nation," Ritchie said when announcing the agenda. "I firmly believe Minnesota does it right when it comes to elections, but there is always room to find ways to do it better. Our experiences in the 2008 elections have shown us how good our system really is, how it withstands the scrutiny of intense media coverage, and what areas require improvement."

One of Ritchie's reforms calls for creating a 21st century voter registration system to reduce costs to local governments, improve the integrity and security of the system, and improve overall service to voters. The proposal streamlines the registration process by registering citizens to vote when they sign-up to get their driver's licenses or state ID cards, unless they opt out or are not eligible. The secretary of state would check databases housed with several state agencies such as the Department of Corrections, and the courts to sort out individuals not eligible to register. If enacted, the proposal will save local governments millions of dollars by reducing data-entry work and costs related to Election Day registration, he said.

In addition, Ritchie plans to introduce a proposal to give Minnesotans the option of online voter registration as well as the ability to confirm their registration online.

Ritchie said he also wants to simplify and modernize the absentee voting process to benefit Minnesota voters and standardize the process for counting ballots. In 2008, twice as many absentee ballots were cast as in the 2006 general election. Of the 2.92 million votes cast in the general election, about 1 in 10 voters chose to vote absentee.

"Minnesotans are changing the way they live, work, and vote," Ritchie said. "We must be responsive to that change and simplify and enhance the process for voters and enact safeguards to maintain the integrity of the system."

As part of his proposal, Ritchie introduced a form of in-person early voting, where voters will be able to cast their ballots several weeks prior to the election. He will also advocate for the handling of absentee ballots at the county and city level, instead of transporting absentee ballots to local polling places on Election Day to be processed. The change would reduce or eliminate errors in the processing of absentee ballots.

Ritchie also seeks to reform methods by which recounts are conducted. His proposals would ensure that frivolous ballot challenges do not slow down the recount process. The reforms include measures to lower state and local government costs by reducing the vote margin that qualifies for a government-funded recount and only conducting a recount when a candidate requests one.

Meanwhile Tuesday, Mack was subpoenaed to appear before the three-judge panel which is hearing Norm Coleman's contest of Al Franken's 225-vote win in the U.S. Senate race.

Mack was called to testify on how some 50 absentee ballots were rejected, based on improper witness signatures. Al Franken's campaign claimed a victory in that the ballots were properly rejected and should not be counted by the judge panel. Coleman's forces also claimed victory, saying the way Beltrami County determined witness signatures were not valid shows how the ballots were treated differently among counties.

Mack, however, testified that the process Beltrami County used was legal, and that she'd make the same decisions again.

"It's honestly excruciating.," Mack testified about trying to sort out witness signatures on absentee ballots.

"It's extremely time consuming," she said. "You might not have seen the worst of the handwriting on some of these. Sometimes it involves phone calls, 'Can you tell us who your witness was,' 'How do they spell their last name.'"

Mack testified that "we make every effort to know we truly are verifying the person that witnessed, and not some misspelling of that person or in our mind a misspelling. And so it's extremely time consuming."

Transcript of testimony provided by the St. Paul Bureau