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Talking Points -- Finding a better way for Minnesota to cast votes

Late last fall, Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie was in Morris for a DFL fundraiser. As the featured speaker, he extolled the virtues of Minnesota's voting systems and how several electorally challenged states (re: Florida, in the Bush v. Gore days) had spent millions of dollars in recent years to adopt Minnesota's process.

Six months after the November 2008 elections, however, and Minnesota still has just one U.S. Senator, as Norm Coleman and Al Franken continue their election battle in the Minnesota Supreme Court. There are some who believe the drawn-out process that is testing the public's patience represents the state's Florida Moment: Tough to get all swelled up about your election systems when almost daily we here about absentee ballots rejected here but not there, and some ballots disappearing altogether.

But, on the contrary, Ritchie feels as good or better about Minnesota's voting process than he did before November. In fact, he's playing off the Senate election and recount to tout the system and lobby for reforms that will make an already formidable system even better.

"The Senate recount has given us the opportunity to use the bright spotlight," Ritchie said this week. "We've been able to ID areas where we can improve Minnesota's election system."

Ritchie spent time traveling around with Mike Dean, of Common Cause, to promote three bills making their way through the Minnesota House and Senate that they believe will making voting even more efficient, streamlined, inclusive and accurate. The League of Women Voters and other organizations around the state are in on the effort, too.

One bill involves early voting. The provision would allow people to vote 15 days before a general election, allowing the public to cast votes at a local elections office at a time convenient to them.

Early voting would allow elections judges to handle any problems on the spot, eliminating the potential for errors and give voters time to rectify problems that might otherwise keep them from voting on election day.

Absentee ballots would decrease. It's very possible problems cropped up in that race because absentee ballots increased from 150,000 in the state to 300,000 in one election cycle.

A growing number of states have adopted early voting, and a study by Democracy Corps indicates that one-third of U.S. voters cast ballots early in 2008. Early voting also would reduce stress on election judges on election day.

Another bill streamlines the absentee ballot process. Dean said the rejection of 12,000 absentee ballots in the 2008 elections points to a confusing process that needs repair.

Under the bill, election administrators would reject or accept absentee ballots before they are sent to precincts. No longer would witnesses be needed to certify ballots, and signatures would be replaced with identification numbers. And since ballots would be processed as they came in, errors could be corrected before election day.

A 21st Century Voter Registration system is laid out in a third bill. The biggest problems on election day are voter registration issues, Dean said.

Under the bill, eligible voters would be registered when they apply for a state drivers license, unless they opt out. The process allows the state to weed out ineligible voters through databases, smooths out election day voting, and saves money since registration applications would no longer need to be processed.

The Senate recount might be good for something other than putting two Senators to work.

"You don't often get this powerful a look inside the system," Ritchie said. "You move the couch once a year. What's under there might be OK, maybe not -- you don't know. Well, we moved the couch and we found that people want a different way to vote."