Democracy sees participation evolve

Knaak: Time to look at new ideas for holding elections

By ERIK SANDIN – Stillwater Gazette

OAK PARK HEIGHTS – There was a time early in America’s history when participating in democracy was not an option.

Before the passing the Constitution, Congress "did one of the most radical things," said lawyer and former state senator Fritz Knaak. Members passed the Northwest Ordinance.

What the Northwest Ordinance did, according to Knaack, is eliminate all "contests and claims" by the original states and then established the mechanism that divided states into counties and townships and required citizens to take part in local government.

"It required you to participate in local government," Knaack said. "Immigrants were told, ‘You’re in America. This is how we do it.’ It’s because that’s the way it’s been here."

Yet more than 200 years later, Knaack said citizen participation in democracy has changed to where more future elections will be closely contested.

"We have a changing and evolving pattern," he told the Stillwater Lions and Rotary clubs at the organizations’ joint Law Day program Thursday at Boutwells Landing.

"What has changed gradually is the underlying demographics," he added. "The fundamentals remain with this electorate. We’re going to have close elections. We have to keep our eye on elections."

But Knaak pointed out that Minnesota overall, does a such a good job of holding elections that voter fraud is not a major problem. One example he cited was the 2008 U.S. Senate race between Democrat, and eventual winner, Al Franken and incumbent Republican Norm Coleman, who Knaack represented as part of Coleman’s recount legal team.

Although Knaack said 12,000 absentee ballots from that race were "not counted and will never be counted," there was no evidence of fraud.

"There wasn’t fraud. These were technical problems," Knaack said. "It simply didn’t happen. Believe me, we were looking. It wasn’t fraud that got Al Franken elected, it was good lawyering. I think, in my heart of hearts, that if those 12,000 ballots had been counted, Norm Coleman would have won."

In the aftermath of 2008, Knaak said many municipal and county clerks responsible for running elections have become more cautious in the handling of absentee ballots.

"It’s clearly something we don’t want to see happen again," he said about the 2008 recount.

Knaak said there is what he terms "a sincere bipartisan effort at the State Capitol to fix election-related problems." But he adds that those efforts could be hurt if voters approve the Voter ID state constitutional amendment in November.

"I’m afraid it’s going to lock us into a system where new ideas aren’t used," he said.

Among those new ideas, Knaak said, are greater use of technology, changing from absentee to early voting, even changing the idea of how we hold elections.

"Why do we have an election day?" he said. "Why not an election week, or an election weekend. It’s going to happen. It’s an idea too good not to pass."

In the meantime, Knaak said debate on the Voter ID amendment will continue dominating election reform talks.

"I think there is some political motivation behind it," he said about the amendment. "Republicans are in control of the legislature, a Democrat is governor, and frankly, they don’t know what to do."

But whatever voters decide about Voter ID, Knaak said the state will find itself "a poster child" for holding elections.

"We’re Minnesotans, so it’s got to work right. We should be at the cutting edge of this (election) technology," he said.