Lawmakers divided over need for election reformby Tom Scheck, Minnesota Public Radio
The Minnesota Senate could take up a bill as early as today that changes state election law, but members of the Minnesota House don't appear to have the same sense of urgency to pass the legislation.
The bill is aimed at resolving some of the problems that came to light during the U.S. Senate recount.
Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie's office has been pushing to get the legislation passed this session so that local elections officials have time to prepare for next year's election.
St. Paul, Minn. — It's been six months since Election Day, and Minnesota is still waiting for a winner in the U.S. Senate race. Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said the long-running recount highlighted concerns over wrongly-rejected absentee ballots and the stress on local elections workers. He said it showed the need to change election laws.
"We have a lot of information about important changes that we can make and we have momentum because the recount has given us a lot of momentum around making changes," Ritchie said.
The bill the Minnesota Senate is set to vote on tackles some of those issues. The bill would create a more uniform standard for collecting and counting absentee ballots.
DFL Sen. Katie Sieben of Newport said her legislation would also allow Minnesotans to vote up to 18 days before the election, a move she said would reduce the steady increase in voting absentee. She also said moving the state's primary election from September to June would give elections workers more time to create and mail absentee ballots to overseas voters.
"The Franken-Coleman race showed that we do have a strong election system here in Minnesota," Sieben said. "But there are changes that could help ensure that more Minnesotans votes are counted."
Sieben and other members of the Senate say they hope the House would be willing to accept many of the ideas they and the Secretary of State's office put in the bill. But the chair of the elections committee in the House doesn't see the same urgency.
"There is nothing in any of these bills that will cause the earth to stand still, that will mean that tomorrow the sun does not come up, or I'll put it this way, could not be heard next session," said DFL Rep. Gene Pelowski of Winona.
Pelowski said, besides making changes to the absentee ballot system, there isn't a real need to change the state's election laws. Pelowski said there wasn't fraud or any other fundamental problem with the 2008 election. He said it was just a close election.
"In the millions of votes, we're only looking at a few hundred here that are called into question and again called into question because of any type of corruption? No," Pelowski said. "Called into question because primarily of absentee ballots and how they were handled. What I consider Minnesota to be is a shining example of we're going to count every vote we can possibly can and if it takes six months to do it then it takes six months to do it."
DFL House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher said she's going to follow Pelowski's lead on election bills. She also said it's hard to make changes to election law when the Senate race is being argued in the courts. She said it may be easier to act on election bills next year.
But Secretary of State Ritchie is pushing for the Legislature to make the changes this session. He said failing to act this year could mean some of the changes won't happen at all because every member of the Legislature and all of the state's constitutional officers will be on the ballot in 2010.
"These are changes that are important for the well-being of the system," Ritchie said. "Some have been passed before. These are things we need now and we need to do this in a year that doesn't have big elections." Ritchie said local elections officials would like to see some of the changes put in place this session so they have time to prepare for 2010. He also argues that changing the absentee ballot system will save money. But money could force the Legislature to put off election matters until next year.
Lawmakers and Gov. Pawlenty are still negotiating over how to erase the state's $4.6 billion budget deficit. With less than two weeks to go until the constitutional deadline for lawmakers to finish their work, lawmakers may focus most of their remaining time on the budget.
- Morning Edition, 05/06/2009, 7:20 a.m.