Bill proposes provisional ballots to help guarantee certain voters are truly eligible to vote

The omnibus elections bill to be heard tonight in the Minnesota Senate Committee on State Government Finance and Policy and Elections includes a number of important provisions to strengthen the integrity of the voting process.

Election law must balance the interest in making the vote accessible to all eligible voters versus guaranteeing only eligible voters vote.

Minnesota law errs far too heavily on making the vote accessible.  For instance, the state allows same-day registration and, on Election Day, allows people to vouch for another person registering.

The state also has a very weak process in place to guarantee people don’t vote when they are ineligible to vote due to a felony conviction, mental incompetence and lack of citizenship.   The omnibus election bill aims to strengthen that process.

Minnesota courts and state agencies regularly provide the Secretary of State with data on people who are ineligible to vote due to a felony conviction, mental incompetence and lack of citizenship.  Yet, most voters would be surprised to know learn how easy it is for these ineligible voters to register and vote, despite the collection and communication of this data.

When the Office of the Secretary of State receives the data, they match the list against registered voters.  Any match is then marked “challenged” in the statewide voter registration system.

It would be reasonable to assume that a “challenge” would require an individual to provide some evidence on their eligibility before casting a ballot.

But that is not how the process works.  A challenged voter can erase the challenge by simply taking an oath and self-certifying their eligibility.  After taking an oath, the OSS election judge guide instructs election officials to hand them a ballot and allow them to vote.  They then vote without anyone ever verifying their eligibility status before their vote gets counted.

Think about that. Election officials are told to disregard the existence of a court order revoking the right to vote or other evidence from state agencies and let people vote anyway, so long as the individual promises they’re eligible.  That’s right, election officials are told to trust the word of likely felons or mentally incompetent people over the data they receive from courts and state agencies.

State law does require the OSS to try to identify whether an ineligible person voted and then pass that on to the county attorney.  But incredibly, the OSS does not maintain a complete, cumulative list of all ineligible people.   In response to questions posed by the Minnesota Voters Alliance in 2015, the OSS admitted that they don’t maintain cumulative lists from data they receive from the courts on felony convictions and mental incompetence.  Without a cumulative list, there’s no way for the OSS to go back and check whether certain people improperly registered to vote at a later date.  Thus, an improper registration may never be identified and they will be allowed to freely vote because the OSS does not maintain a cumulative list to recheck.

Outside of Minnesota, nearly every other state in the country gives people a provisional ballot if there are challenges to their eligibility on Election Day.  The ballot is only counted after further verification of the voter’s eligibility.  It’s a balanced policy that guarantees people the opportunity to vote, while, at the same time, guaranteeing that their eligibility is verified.

The omnibus election bill would adopt this sensible approach to sort out whether people marked challenged are truly eligible to vote.  In addition, the bill would require the OSS to retain information on ineligible voters from the courts and clarifies that state agencies must provide complete lists of ineligible voters.

Those who oppose these policies argue they are unnecessary because there is no evidence of voter fraud.  But this is less about fraud and more about stopping people from voting who mistakenly believe they are eligible.

When local elections in Minnesota are so often determined by a handful of votes, these reforms take common sense steps to strengthen the integrity of Minnesota elections, which, in turn, will bolster the public’s confidence in the outcome.