ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The future of online voter registration in Minnesota is now in the hands of a Ramsey County judge, after a spirited court hearing Friday.
The Minnesota Voters Alliance and Minnesota Majority took Minn. Secretary of State Mark Ritchie to court, in an effort to dismantle the online voter registration system he launched in late September.
"At this point the Secretary should just stop, just stop doing online voter registration until this matter is settled," Dan McGrath of Minnesota Majority, a conservative policy organization, told KARE after the hearing ended.
McGrath contends that Ritchie is violating the state's election laws which mandate that voters register in person or by mail. Since September at least 2,500 Minnesotans have gone online and applied to register or to update their existing registrations.
"Obviously we're proud of this tool that's modernizing our voting process," Nate Bowie, a spokesperson for the Secretary of State's office, told KARE.
"The online voter registration uses the exact same process as paper registration."
It's true that online applicants submit the same information as they do when they fill out the mail-in registration form. And those applicants are subjected to the same eligibility checks as traditional applicants.
What is at issue is whether the online mechanism for delivering that information is permitted by state law.
Ritchie defends the use of the Internet for registration on the Uniform Electronic Transaction Act, passed by the state legislature in the year 2000. The law permits electronic signatures to be substituted for paper signatures when if comes to state business.
He asserts that the "motor voter" registrations, collected by the Minnesota's Driver and Vehicle Services division at the time people are applying for driver's licenses, are electronically transmitted to the Secretary of State's office. The office keeps an electronic file on those registrations, but has no paper document to keep on file.
But Ritchie's legal adversaries say at least those voters are appearing in person, and supplying signatures as part of their applications.
Ramsey County District Judge John Guthmann must decide whether that electronic commerce law supersedes what the election statutes stipulate, in terms of registering in person or by mail. Guthmann, who had tough questions for attorneys on both sides, must sort out whether the election law would be considered an exception to the electronic signatures statute.
"Our argument in court was the state legislature has to be required to do these things expressly," Erick Kaardal, the attorney representing the Minnesota Voters Alliance, explained.
"Otherwise it creates confusion in the court, just like you saw today."
The state legislature included online registration in the Omnibus Elections Bill passed in 2007, but then-Governor Tim Pawlenty vetoed the bill. Pawlenty, a Republican, said he only favored election reforms that had clear bipartisan support. At the time most Republicans were against online registration.
Guthmann must also decide whether those who have already registered in the new system will have to apply again, in the event that he sides with the plaintiffs.
The ACLU of Minnesota has asked the judge to let those registrations stand because the voters acted in good faith.
"We wanted to speak on behalf of them, and advocate their registrations shouldn't be put into jeopardy based on the outcome of this case," Emma Greenman, a Minneapolis attorney who appeared pro bono on behalf of the ACLU, said.
She said that the courts have generally erred on the side of allowing voters to cast valid ballots.
"There's also a long-standing constitutional tradition of the courts not intervening to alter the rights of voters, and folks exercising the franchise, when public officials have made mistakes."
The voters alliance is asking the judge to issue a "writ of quo warranto" rather than the more typical "declaratory judgment" in this case. The quo warranto allows for a more expedited hearing process and therefore makes the case less expensive to fight.
But on the bench Friday Judge Guthman said a writ of quo warranto would be more limited in impact than a traditional ruling.
He suggested a writ could be used to shut down the online registration system going forward, but not necessarily do anything to invalidate the new voter registrations already collected in the system since September.
The judge suggested that even if he ruled against Ritchie's registration system opponents would most likely be forced to begin a traditional lawsuit to invalidate those new online registrations.
Kaardal and McGrath said that's something their groups may consider, based on the notion that improperly, illegally registered voters could influence the outcome of tight elections.