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County elections officials challenge new voter registration rules
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Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer is under fire from some election officials around the state for the way she is implementing changes to election procedures. (MPR file photo)
County elections officials from across Minnesota say the Secretary of State has overstepped her authority, by making changes to election policy without allowing public debate or legislative review.

St. Paul, Minn. — The presidential election is about 100 days away. Minnesota's preparations are in full swing, including complying with the federal Help America Vote Act, or HAVA.

The law was passed in 2002, a response to the voting debacle in Florida during the 2000 presidential election.

The law provides money for states to replace aging ballot machines. It also requires changes to the voter registration process.

Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer says most of the law deals with the minutiae of voting -- technical things like how big a voter registration card is, and how much it weighs. Kiffmeyer says HAVA will streamline the voting process.

Any time an agency or a public body is given the ability to adopt rules, which are basically laws, without significant public review, there's going to be some concern.
- Kevin Corbid, Washington County elections official

"There are some other ones as far as the requirements of HAVA and the forms of identification, and the requirement for things to be verified with the Department of Public Safety," Kiffmeyer says. "It's just putting in the rules the steps on how that is accomplished."

When anything changes about how we vote, usually public hearings are required. But Kiffmeyer has been adamant these changes take place before this year's presidential election. So, the Legislature gave Kiffmeyer an exemption from standard rulemaking procedures.

That has county elections officials up in arms.

"Any time an agency or a public body is given the ability to adopt rules, which are basically laws, without significant public review, there's going to be some concern," says Kevin Corbid, the elections director for Washington County.

Corbid says a number of counties, including most of those in the metropolitan area, oppose Kiffmeyer's sweeping authority in this situation. They're worried, once in place, the changes will make it harder for people to vote.

And in fact, Corbid says some of the changes aren't just technical, they're significant -- especially those related to voter registration.

Corbid says right now, a voter could walk in, write their information down on a napkin, and it would be transferred to a voter registration card. Kiffmeyer wants a single, official card, developed by her office, as the only acceptable form of registration.

Corbid and others say this should all be debated before it goes into effect. They have another concern, which has to do with the information people give about themselves when they register to vote.

As of January, the new federal law requires voters to provide a drivers license number, or the last four digits of their Social Security number. Any mistakes in that information, even getting one number wrong, now means the form isn't accepted.

Kevin Corbid, the Washington County election official, says that change takes away local discretion.

"We would not be able to make any changes without contacting the voter and getting the information directly from them. That doesn't seem to be in the voter's best interests, and again, should have some additional review," he says.

So far, about 130 letters of opposition have been sent to an administrative law judge. The letters charge that Mary Kiffmeyer is overstepping her authority. Election and county officials from around the state say she is making policy changes they consider inappropriate.

For her part, Kiffmeyer seems perplexed by all the criticism -- which she calls a "misunderstanding."

She says this is what the new federal law requires.

"As a matter of fact, these things help to make it easier, promote simplicity and standards," says Kiffmeyer. "The voters -- as far as the process and filling out the application and going through the whole thing -- are handling this all very, very well. And our comments are that they appreciate this and support it."

The administrative law judge will rule on whether or not the proposed changes are constitutional, and whether or not Kiffmeyer is acting within the scope of her authority.

The judge's decision is expected by July 22.

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