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Election is still on the hot seat for some state residents

Jurist Joe Bradseth of Puposky takes part in a 24-member citizens' jury Saturday, in which recommendations for improving Minnesota's election process were drawn up. Photo by Don Davis

MINNEAPOLIS -- Simplifying Minnesota's absentee ballot procedure would have prevented many problems in the U.S. Senate race, a group of voters said in response to an eight-month delay in seating the state's second senator.

A "citizens' jury" decided that "eight months is an unacceptable length of time to have a vacant seat" and presented recommendations, including simpler absentee voting, to fix election weak spots.

Top election officials from other states, gathered at a national secretaries of state conference in Minneapolis, agreed on many of their points.

Last Nov. 4's Senate race needed a recount of all 2.9 million votes and then Norm Coleman took the case to court, conceding to Al Franken only after the state Supreme Court unanimously ruled against him on June 30. Franken won by 312 votes.

Two Minnesota-based organizations, The Jefferson Center and Promoting Healthy Democracy, organized and funded what it called a citizens' jury to examine how to improve the process.

The major recommendation is to simplify absentee ballot laws and do a better job of explaining to voters how to cast an absentee ballot. Coleman's case hinged on what he called improperly rejected absentee ballots. Recount and court officials spent weeks looking over absentee ballots to decide if they should be counted.

The jury said the state should consider the controversial idea of requiring a photo identification or other type of ID for voter verification to obtain an absentee ballot.

The jury also recommended allowing early voting that does not require a reason. Current law requires a reason, such as being out of the area on election day, before a voter may obtain an absentee ballot. The Legislature would have to change the law, which has failed in the past.

Also controversial is a recommendation to move the state's primary election to a date earlier than its current September home. The jury said that September may be too late if a primary election recount is needed before the November election.

Randy Bolen of Two Harbors, one of 24 jury members selected at random, said he had no clue how complicated the absentee ballot process is.

Bolen said that he hopes legislators take the report seriously because it was drawn up "by the people around the state."

Paul Viss of Willmar said the jury's recommendations should "make the whole election process go more smoothly." The former Hancock school board member said both major political parties should agree with the recommendations.

"The public should know that voting is a serious business," Viss said. "They need to be careful with their ballots, especially with absentee ballots."

Marilyn Tinjum of Detroit Lakes said early voting using machines would be a good change because fewer mistakes were found with machine votes than those counted by hand.

While the jury's duty ended Saturday, five jurists said they will lobby to change state election law.

Many agreed with Melody Bolin of Duluth, who said: "I hadn't thought about it." But she expressed a willingness to continue working on election issues.

Those who are paid to think about elections say they have followed the Minnesota recount and court case.

Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed handled his own high-profile recount of the near-deadlocked 2004 governor's race.

For him, the big difference was the leader in the governor's race took office until recount officials and the courts sorted out the votes. In Minnesota, the Senate seat was vacant until all of that was settled.

Reed admitted that it is easier to leave a Senate seat open than the governor's job.

The first advice Reed had for Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, who called Reed when he realized how close the Senate contest would be, was to keep to keep things open to the public. He urged Ritchie to make sure the media, political parties and candidates were kept up to date every step of the way.

"The rumor mill just goes wild," he said.

California Secretary of State Debra Bowen said laws in her state and Minnesota are so different, there were few lessons she could learn from the Senate experience. But she did point to one: She wants a state law to require counties to let the public see ballots involved in a recount.

Ritchie made ballots available and the media showed them throughout the recount, something that Bowen said worked well.