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Challenges possible at the polls
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Both major political parties are expected to send challengers to individual polling places, to scrutinize what happens there. Minnesota's election law has more restrictions on such challengers than some other swing states. (MPR Photo/Bob Reha)
Most Minnesotans will cast their votes Tuesday without a hitch. However, it's almost certain that hundreds will be challenged on their right to cast a ballot. The close election, memories of Florida's voting irregularities and partisan passions will cause challengers from both major parties to scrutinize what happens at the polling place. Minnesota law allows each major party to have one challenger at each polling place. But election officials say they've trained election judges to make sure the challengers behave themselves.

St. Paul, Minn. — A vigorous registration effort in Minnesota by both major political parties has added more than 200,000 voters to the rolls. Republicans and Democrats will have challengers at many locations to question whether some of the new registrants are qualified to vote.

But Minnesotans don't have to worry that another voter standing in line will challenge them. That's not allowed by state law.

Instead, state law allows each major party to send one challenger to a polling place. The law says challengers tell the election judge who they're challenging. The election judge then talks to the voter.

Ramsey County Elections Manager Joe Mansky says there's another restriction. State law requires the challenger have personal knowledge or a reasonable basis to question another person's right to cast a ballot.

"We are not going to tolerate challenges that are frivolous, that are automatic, that are based on purely physical characteristics," Mansky says.

We are not going to tolerate challenges that are frivolous, that are automatic, that are based on purely physical characteristics. That means clothing, skin color and manner of speech ... cannot be used to challenge a voter.
- Joe Mansky, Ramsey County elections manager

That means clothing, skin color and manner of speech, among other characteristics, cannot be used to challenge a voter. Mansky says election judges have been warned to reject challenges based solely on a person's appearance or ability to speak English.

He says challengers in Ramsey county face trouble if they engage in what he calls profiling, or automatic challenges.

"Challengers who engage in that kind of activity will be asked to leave the polling place," he says.

If challenges disrupt voting, Minnesota law gives election judges the power to call the police to keep order.

State law further limits vote challenging by creating two safe zones for voters. One is inside the polling place. No non-voters can speak to people waiting there, or in a 100-ft. long column extending outside the polling place.

Manksy expects most vote challenging will happen in urban neighborhoods with large immigrant and student populations.

"Only in areas of Minneapolis and St. Paul that have either college students, low income individuals, the immigrant population -- the parts of the population that typically do not vote in large numbers -- that's where we expect to find the challengers and the other individuals outside the polling place, to see who is coming and going," he says.

Mansky says the election judge makes the call on whether to question a voter based on a challenge. He says the judge runs down a list of questions establishing the voter's age, residency and other qualifications.

He says many polling places in both St. Paul and Minneapolis will have bilingual workers to help voters who may not understand how to respond to voter challenges.

"We'll have, for example, between 45 and 50 bilingual judges who speak both Hmong and English. We'll also have a similar number of judges who speak both Spanish and English, and we'll also have a couple of judges who speak both Somali and English," says Mansky.

Some neighboring states limit vote challenging. But their laws are different from Minnesota's.

North Dakota and Iowa limit the number and activity of polling place challengers. Iowa allows three challengers per major party. South Dakota places essentially no restrictions on the number of vote challengers.

Wisconsin has the fewest restrictions, and gives the challengers some additional rights. Unlike Minnesota, any Wisconsin voter can challenge another voter. State law says challengers need only have "suspicions" about a person's right to vote. Then, the ballot of the voter who is challenged is marked and set aside for any followup challenges.

In Minnesota, once an election judge approves a voter's eligibility that's the end of it. The vote is cast and counted, unless the election judge has already disqualified the voter.

Wisconsin's vote challenging system most closely resembles Ohio's. Ohio's system was challenged in court, and as of Monday the state says no challengers from any group will be allowed in Ohio polling places. However, it appears Ohio will continue to allow any voter to challenge another's right to cast a ballot.

The variation in state voting rules and regulations is too confusing, according to Rob Richie, executive director of the non-partisan Center for Voting and Democracy based in Maryland. He predicts vote challenges in some states will cause confusion and delay that will drive some away from the polls.

Richie says nearly every aspect of casting a ballot in this country needs closer regulation.

"We need to look at things like universal voter registration, so that the voter registration rolls are complete and clean. We should look at Election Day holidays, so we have a pool of poll workers and make it easier for having a larger pool of election judges," Richie says.

"A lot of things could be done in a consistent way at a national level, that could remove a lot of the uncertainty that is going to come from different counties and states making different decisions -- and some of them are bound to be controversial," says Richie.

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