The Free Press, Mankato, MN

June 18, 2013

Close voting gap

Why it matters: Minnesota lags behind most states and our neighbors in user-friendly voting

The Mankato Free Press

---- — Minnesotans take pride in leading the country in everything from health care to education, but we remain behind our neighbors and most of the country in user-friendly voting.

All of our neighboring states as well as Illinois allow citizens to not only vote absentee with little trouble but also to vote before Election Day, according to a report in MinnPost, the online public affairs news site. In essence, we have a voting convenience gap.

The Legislature and governor approved bipartisan election reforms this year. The biggest change came in absentee voting where, like other states, those who vote absentee no do not have to give a specific reason. It is known as no-excuse absentee voting.

In the past, absentee voters were required to state a reason they couldn’t make it to their polling place on Election Day. Many fudged reasons, experts argue, just because they wanted to vote early. Others, elderly for example, may have wanted to vote absentee but didn’t feel comfortable fudging a reason other than it was just more convenient for them.

With the change to no-excuse absentee voting, officials expect some of those barriers to be removed and see it as one step to make voting more convenient. That should be the goal. In a consumer-oriented society where service is king, the government should embrace improving service to its “taxpayer-customers.”

Approving early voting would be a step in that direction.

Democrats controlling the Legislature garnered bipartisan support for the no-excuse absentee voting but were not as successful in building support with Republicans for early voting.

Opponents contend that early voting increases risks of voter fraud. That doesn’t seem to have happened in the 32 states that allow early voting as well as no-excuse absentee voting. The requirements for voter registration and identification have not changed, so it’s hard to see why there would be more fraud.

Early voting opponents argue that volunteer poll-watchers often used by both parties would be hard pressed to camp out for weeks at early voting stations to check on potential fraud. That might open up more opportunities for fraud by unscrupulous people, they argue.

That’s possible, but it seems some minor safeguards, an auditing system for example, might prevent the kind of fraud opponents worry about. In fact, in a less hectic environment than Election Day, officials might have more time to scrutinize voter ID issues or registration problems.

To his credit, Gov. Mark Dayton opposed any changes in voting and election law that did not have broad bipartisan support. That makes sense as both parties have a stake in every election. Bipartisan support prevents one party or the other from taking advantage of their majority status to craft voting rules that would somehow give the advantage to their party.

That bipartisan coalition that approved no-excuse absentee voting this year should consider approving early voting in the 2014 session. Dayton should urge them to move forward on that as well.

Early voting would put Minnesota on a par with other states that already allow it. We can learn from their experience and tweak our registration requirements if need be.

Studies on early voting suggest voter turnout increases. A pilot program in Ramsey County with no-excuse absentee voting shows that when voting was made easier, voting increased, according to the MinnPost report.

In the end, higher voter participation can reduce cynicism and give citizens confidence that they have a voice in their democracy. That should be the ultimate goal.