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By Briana Bierschbach, Associated Press Writer , Published March 09 2010

Minnesota targets absentee balloting system

ST. PAUL – Minnesota’s drawn-out U.S. Senate election between Democrat Al Franken and Republican Norm Coleman revealed unexpected problems with a little-examined area of elections: absentee ballots.

Now state lawmakers are trying to clean up the problem.

A bill that would overhaul absentee balloting practices passed the state House 131-2 and won preliminary approval in the Senate on Monday. It would require special panels to review absentee ballots and tighten the procedure for linking absentee ballots to their envelopes, one of the problems that disqualified some voters in the 2008 Senate election.

Franken ultimately edged out Coleman by only 312 votes in an election that wasn’t resolved until eight months after Election Day. Rejected absentee ballots were a major point of contention.

Ramsey County Elections Manager Joe Mansky said Minnesota’s voting system is already good, but the legislation will help patch up those problems that came under unprecedented scrutiny in the high-stakes contest. He said the absentee ballot panels would minimize errors and inconsistencies criticized in that race.

“This would bring our absentee balloting process from 99.5 percent closer to that ideal 100 percent,” he said.

The bill would also require absentee voters to provide an identification number – a driver’s license, state identification card, the last four digits of a Social Security number, or a statement that the voter doesn’t have any of these. The number, along with a signature, would have to match those on the return envelope before the ballot can be counted.

The state currently matches only signatures, a process that caused confusion and debate during the Senate recount that ended up in court. Angry voters testified that handwriting judgments wrongly disqualified their votes. The proposed numbering system would move the state away from such judgment calls.

“Local election officials are not handwriting experts,” said incoming Hennepin County Elections Manager Rachel Smith, who was in charge of elections in Anoka County during the recount. She supports the bill.

The bill also requires election officials to update voter registration information for absentee voters immediately to ensure a person who votes absentee doesn’t also make a trip to the polls on Election Day.

Bill sponsor Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Cottage Grove, said she expects to have a final version on the governor’s desk by next week.