Elections explained: Who can vote in Minnesota?

May 12, 2022 5:00 am

Voters walk into a polling station at the Minnesota National Guard Minneapolis armory Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. Photo by Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer.

This is part of an occasional series on election administration.

Who can vote in Minnesota?

That’s a simple question with three not-so-simple answers: a constitutional answer, a legal answer, and a realistic answer.

The constitution defines who is eligible. The law specifies the procedures voters must follow to demonstrate their eligibility. And the reality is that those who make it through these procedural hurdles correspond only imperfectly to those who are eligible

Underlying these answers are the administrative mechanisms for registering voters and signing them in to vote, as well as for maintaining the list of registered voters in the face of changing information.

The simplest answer concerns the eligibility requirements, given by a law that elaborates on the Minnesota Constitution. To vote, you must be a citizen of the United States. You must be 18 years of age on the Election Day in question. And you must be a resident of Minnesota for the twenty-day period leading up to Election Day.

More specifically, to vote in a particular precinct, you must have your residence within that precinct.

Even if you meet the requirements of citizenship, age and residence, a court can strip you of your eligibility in either of two ways. Any conviction for a felony entails a loss of voting rights until all terms of the sentence are completed. And a civil process in court can also strip voting rights through a finding of incompetence or as an optional part of a guardianship order.

If you meet these eligibility criteria, you have a constitutional right to vote. But good luck trying to exercise that right if you refuse to fill out the voter registration form. The constitution doesn’t preclude reasonable procedural hurdles to distinguish the eligible from the ineligible and facilitate orderly elections.

Minnesota burdens its voters with fewer formalities than many states, but it does require you to complete a sworn registration either in advance or at the time of voting, as well as to swear an additional oath each time you vote. You must also validate your registration with some corroborating evidence and must address any conflicting evidence the election officials obtain.

The need for corroborating evidence is most clear with Election Day registration. You need to present one of a defined list of options to lend support to your claim of residence. The most common option is an up-to-date driver’s license. Another common situation is that the voter presents a driver’s license with a former address together with a document showing their current address, such as a recent utility bill.

A 2018 report from the Office of the Legislative Auditor (OLA) showed that in the 2016 election, 257,000 voters used the first of these two options and 48,000 used the second.

These two options for confirming residence illustrate the great strength of Minnesota’s law: It accommodates the realities of voters’ lives. A driver’s license is harder to counterfeit than a utility bill. But many honest Minnesotans walk around with out-of-date licenses in their wallets. A rigid insistence on state-issued ID as the only evidence of residence would simply invite them to continue voting at their old address, falsely claiming to still reside there.

Having the occasional counterfeiter slip in — and face prosecution for a felony — is a reasonable price to pay for facilitating honesty on the part of tens of thousands of voters who have moved.

Another option accommodates those who lack any documentary evidence of their residence. For example, a young person may be sharing premises with a roommate in whose name the lease and utilities are listed.

Someone in this situation can make use of an eyewitness — a registered voter from the same precinct who can testify from personal experience as to where they live. (The roommate, for example, might know full well who is rooming with them.) The OLA’s data for 2016 shows 21,000 Election Day registrants availed themselves of this option, known as “vouching.”

The corroborating evidence for registrations submitted ahead of time — as opposed to on Election Day — is less visible. County election officials check the information from the application form against information in various databases, and they send non-forwardable mail to the claimed residential address. Most of the time, they can obtain the necessary confirmation that way, without needing any involvement from the voter. The few voters for whom this doesn’t work need to provide corroboration when they vote.

Next, let us turn to evidence of the opposite kind: Facts suggesting that the voter isn’t eligible to vote, at least not in the particular precinct. Perhaps a piece of mail was returned as undeliverable, the Postal Service provided a change of address, or the voter supplied a different address in some other context than what they had listed on their voter registration. 

Alternatively, the conflicting evidence might come from data provided every five to 15 minutes by the State Court Administrator’s Office and checked against the Statewide Voter Registration System (SVRS) — perhaps showing a felony sentence or finding of incompetence.

Any information may be out of date. The courts’ internal processes are not as speedy as the connection between their computer and SVRS. And the voter registration has been on file since whenever the voter submitted it. Even if all the information was accurate when created, it doesn’t necessarily reflect the voter’s current situation, let alone the situation as of the next Election Day.

Further, either or both of the conflicting items may have been erroneous from the start. Perhaps an address was mistyped. Perhaps supposedly undeliverable mail resulted from a postal carrier’s error. Perhaps a conviction recorded as a felony was actually a misdemeanor. All of these things occur, as the legislative auditor noted in their report.

Thus, all that can be concluded is that the voter’s registration is in question. To reflect this fact, an annotation is added to the SVRS that the voter should be challenged the next time they try to vote.

When a voter is challenged, the election judges do not allow them to simply sign the usual oath that attests to all aspects of their eligibility. That’s too easy to breeze through without even reading it.

Instead, the election judges specifically query the voter under oath about the topic in question. For example: Where they really reside. If the voter swears both orally and in writing to a particular address, that’s good enough to vote. 

But it isn’t good enough to evade prosecution, if the oath was false. To the contrary, the voter has been put on notice: Anything they choose to do, they are doing knowingly, and so with full criminal culpability.

Investigating the truthfulness of a voter’s oath only after they have voted might seem undesirable. But these investigations take months — there’s no way to hold up counting the ballots that long. For example, investigating a suspicious claim of residence might entail requesting records from financial institutions and using a digital tracking device to monitor the voter’s movements.

In addition to challenges, the list of registered voters is maintained in other ways. Every month, the Minnesota Department of Health and the Social Security Administration provide lists of deceased individuals, which are compared against SVRS. Any deceased voter is removed from the list of registered voters, although their information is retained within SVRS to provide a complete historical record. Any death this misses gets cleaned up by an annual deactivation of any registration that has remained unused for four years.

Lengthy as this description is, it only scratches the surface of how county officials use the statewide system to maintain a relatively up-to-date and accurate list of voters without greatly burdening the right to vote.

Only rarely does an eligible individual find the procedural barriers so high as to prevent voting. For example, someone who lives without shelter or documentation may not be able to find a suitable voucher. 

And only rarely does an ineligible voter circumvent the various safeguards and warnings that stand between them and voting.

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Max Hailperin
Max Hailperin

Max Hailperin is a professor emeritus of mathematics, computer science, and statistics at Gustavus Adolphus College. He earned his Ph.D. at Stanford University and S.B. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Since 2010, he has specialized in the intersection between election technology and election policy, and in 2014, he was awarded the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) Medallion Award “in recognition of his service and contributions to election-related technology and legislation.”