The Free Press, Mankato, MN

March 11, 2013

Our View: Voter fraud laws need changing

The Free Press

— Margaret Schneider is an unlikely candidate for felony charges. But the 86-year-old St. Peter woman will be heading to court to face a judge after being charged with felony voter fraud.

Schneider, who has been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and has symptoms of dementia, did what she always does during elections -- she did her civic duty of voting. Unfortunately, she voted twice, through what from all appearances seem to be by mistake.

She voted absentee in July's primary election and then went to the polls in August and voted again, saying she had forgotten her earlier absentee vote. There was even an "A.B." -- standing for absentee ballot -- written next to her name on the voter logs, but the election judges apparently missed it.

When St. Peter police investigated the problem and turned the results over to the Nicollet County attorney, Schneider was charged. The county attorney noted that state law regarding voter fraud says that if there is probable cause to show a crime, charges must be filed or the county attorney can be forced out of office.

While a judge will have to sort things out from here, the case points to a need for changes in state voter laws.

Few laws require prosecutors to file charges, instead giving county attorneys discretion based on probable cause and extenuating circumstances. Election laws in many states are more strict than those covering other crimes, which, in some cases made sense. In states with a history of election fraud, lawmakers don't want local officials making decisions on whether to file charges because there could be a political motivation behind filing or not filing a charge.

But Minnesota has a long history of exceptionally clean politics and elections and there is no evidence that county attorneys in the state would do anything but use good judgment on whether to file a voter fraud charge.

Not everyone thinks the laws should be changed. Minnesota Majority, the group that backed the unsuccessful constitutional amendment on voter ID, has latched onto the case in St. Peter, saying they don't believe the county attorney was forced to file charges. Their argument -- a weak one we believe -- is that if Schneider showed no intent of breaking the law, the county attorney could have decided there wasn't probable cause a crime was committed.

While intent is needed in a conviction, the state statutes on voter fraud don't give county attorneys the clear leeway they should have to make decisions on prosecuting voter fraud.

The Legislature should heed calls from the Minnesota County Attorneys Association to clarify the law and give prosecutors the leeway they deserve to make decisions on whether to bring charges, just as they do in virtually all other cases.