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electionlineWeekly — Oct. 11, 2012

Table of Contents

I. In Focus This Week

Election administration issues on ballot in several states
Fate of East St. Louis, Ill. elections board up to voters on Nov. 6

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This year, some ballots, like those in Florida, are so long and filled with candidates and issues that elections officials are encouraging voters to vote early to avoid possible lines on Election Day.

The issues on the ballot range from gay marriage to gambling to ethics to tax levies. In several states however, the issues on the ballot are the elections themselves.

In Minnesota voters will decide whether or not photo ID should be required to cast a ballot in future elections, in Arizona voters will decide whether or not to revamp the state’s entire primary system and in Illinois, residents in East Saint Louis will vote whether or not to eliminate city’s election board.

Voter ID
While most voter ID issues are being decided in courts this year, in Minnesota, it’s the residents who will decide whether or not voters will need to show a photo ID at future elections in the North Star State.

And even though the battle is being waged at the ballot box instead of in the courtroom, it has proved no less contentious.

After two voter ID bills approved by the Minnesota Legislature were vetoed by Gov. Mark Dayton, former secretary of state and current state Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer and other legislators proposed a constitutional amendment to require photo ID.

The proposed amendment moved fairly easily through the Minnesota Legislature to appear on the Nov. 6 ballot:

"Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to require all voters to present valid photo identification to vote and to require the state to provide free identification to eligible voters, effective July 1, 2013?"

Of course just because this issue is being decided at the ballot box doesn’t mean that at some point a courtroom wasn’t involved. In July, the ACLU of Minnesota and several other organizations sued to keep the amendment off the ballot.

The Minnesota Supreme Court ultimately ruled that the amendment could appear on the ballot. The court unanimously ruled that the initiative was not misleading, but two judges did dissent on the grounds that “the ballot initiative is harmful and constricts constitutional rights otherwise.”

The amendment is supported by many Republican lawmakers and is opposed by a host of organizations — AARP, Common Cause, League of Women Voters, ACLU — , local governments like Ramsey County and individuals including Secretary of State Mark Ritchie.

Ritchie has argued that a voter photo ID law could end same-day registration in Minnesota because as written the law requires a voter’s eligibility to be verified before casting a ballot. He has also offered an alternative with the introduction of electronic poll books arguing that they would eliminate fraud—real or perceived.

Ritchie’s opposition to the amendment has gotten him into some hot water with Republican lawmakers who last week filed a complaint last week alleging that Ritchie has acted improperly as an elected official.

Ritchie has not commented on the complaint—which goes before a judge on Friday, Oct. 12—other than to say, in a statement “I continue to work closely with local elections officials to ensure that the 2012 General Election is efficient and accurate.”

Local elections officials have expressed concerns about the cost of implementing voter photo ID with the costs ranging in the thousands depending on the size of the county. A statewide survey of auditors put the overall estimated cost as high as $100 million.

In Becker County, Ryan Tangen, auditor-treasurer has said the amendment, if approved, could cost the county up to $500,000. The estimate includes costs for equipment needed to make the IDs, equipment needed to townships that currently vote-by-mail and electronic poll books.

Where the voting public stands on the amendment remains to be seen. In May 2011, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune conducted a poll where 80 percent of the respondents supported voter ID, but a more recent poll conducted in September found that only 52 percent of the respondents supported the voter ID amendment.

Top-two primary
After a protracted battle, voters in Arizona will decide whether or not to follow in the footsteps of California and Washington and begin using a top-two primary system.

In July, members of an organization known as Open Government Committee Supporting Prop 121 submitted more than 356,000 signatures from qualified voters (they needed 259,213 to qualify for the ballot) to put Proposition 121 on the November ballot.

Proposition 121 would eliminate the traditional primary system in the Grand Canyon State and create a top-two primary system for all previously partisan Arizona elections. In addition to essentially creating nonpartisan elections, the law, if approved, would also allow candidates to decide whether or not to list their party affiliation on the ballot.

According to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, Prop 121 could save the state up to $278,000 in reduced printing costs. However, the measure could also cost local governments up to $2 million in additional costs associated with primary elections.

While activists were busy gathering signatures, Republican lawmakers, led by Gov. Jan Brewer, attempted to craft an alternative to the initiative that would have kept an open primary, but forced candidates to disclose their party affiliation. Brewer failed to garner the support necessary for a special session to consider the alternative.

In mid-July a lawsuit with plaintiffs that included a League of Women Voters of Arizona, a former GOP lawmaker and a Libertarian Party activist was filed in an attempt to remove the initiative from the ballot claiming that it was “unconstitutionally broad.”

By early August the measure was before Maricopa County Superior Judge Mark Brain who ruled that the initiative was legally flawed and could not appear on the November ballot. In his ruling Brain said that because the initiative, as written would also ban the use of public money for elections that it violated a prohibition against constitutional amendments dealing with more than one subject.

Needless to say, a trip to the Arizona Supreme Court was in order and in mid-August the state’s top court ruled the initiative should go on the November 6 ballot.

But the battle didn’t end there. Late in August, Maricopa County Elections Director Karen Osborne said that one out of three signatures in the state’s largest county were invalid. The committee supporting the initiative sued Maricopa County saying officials improperly disqualified hundreds of signatures that should have been counted.

At the same time this lawsuit was in court, opponents of the measure were also suing saying petitions were circulated by unqualified circulators.

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge John Rea presided over both cases and ruled that the initiative did in fact have enough signatures to make that ballot and that all circulators were valid.

One last-ditch effort to prevent the measure from making the ballot failed and proponents and opponents began campaigning heavily on the issue with pretty much all of the state’s major and minor political parties campaigning against and many others working in support of the measure.

Should the initiative be approved, the impact it will have on Arizona county elections officials remains to be seen.

“In general, we believe there are about 71 statutes that have to change during the next legislative session in order for us to implement this beginning on Jan. 1, 2014,” explained Karen Osborne, director of elections for Maricopa County.

Osborne said that should the initiative pass, there is nothing that county officials can do to prepare for the new process until these 71 statutes are changed.

Another unknown for county elections officials is how much implementing Prop. 121 would cost. Osborne said there could be some initial costs but then ultimate cost savings.

In addition, counties will have to figure out who to rely in as poll watchers—currently it’s party representatives, but Prop. 121 could change that. Osborne also said that filling vacancies, which has always largely been the responsibility of the party, will need to be sorted out.

“Nothing is insurmountable,” Osborne said. “But we’re in a holding pattern should Prop. 121 be approved.”

East St. Louis elections board
For the second time in less than year, voters in East St. Louis, Ill. will decide whether or not to abolish the city’s elections board.

According to media reports, almost since its creation in 1886, the board has been plagued by years of negative headlines claiming everything from padded voter rolls to “allowing” the dead to vote.

In March, a group called the East St. Louis Alliance for Change succeeded in getting a referendum on the ballot that if successful would have abolished the city elections board.

At the time, the group alleged that the board had failed to monitor voter registration and absentee voting and that the residents of East St. Louis would be better served having the St. Clair County clerk run the city’s elections.

However, during the Illinois primary on March 20, voters voted overwhelmingly to maintain the elections board.

Members of the Alliance argued that the question as it appeared on the ballot, “Shall we reject the city election law of 1885?” was far too vague.

In August, St. Clair County Circuit Judge Stephen McGlynn approved a petition to allow the issue to appear again on the November ballot. The question as it will appear on November 6 is: “Should the East St. Louis Board of Elections be disbanded?”

McGlynn, in large part, placed the referendum on the ballot because no one representing the election board showed up in court to object.

Matt Hawkins, who heads the Alliance said that this time, he and his colleagues will work harder to explain what exactly people are voting for or against.