MOORHEAD — The closing of polling places on the campuses of Minnesota State University Moorhead and Concordia College has led to a lawsuit by a former city councilman who says the city shouldn’t have made it harder for students to vote.
Mark Altenburg filed a lawsuit Friday, Oct. 26, against the city clerk seeking, essentially, an apology for the mix-up.
“They made a mistake. They should’ve admitted it,” he told The Forum Monday, Oct. 29.
He said he feels strongly about the issue because when he was a council member, MSUM students were among his constituents and he worked to open a polling site on their campus, the same one the council took away.
With Election Day about a week away, it’s already too late to change polling places. But the city has joined the DFL party and MSUM to give rides to students there and at Concordia College to new off-campus polls.
For MSUM students, the new polls are only a few blocks away from the old ones. For Concordia students, the new polls are more than 1.5 miles away, a long ways to go for those without cars.
Both campuses had hosted polls beginning in 2012. In January this year, the council voted on a new list of polling places, recommended by staff, that eliminated the ones on the two campuses. Staff told city leaders in a memo that key factors were “high rental costs and low voter turnout.”
But, the city modified its stance after former secretary of state Mary Kiffmeyer said Oct. 22 that the city failed to meet a Dec. 31 deadline. That means polling places should be unchanged from the last election in 2017.
City Attorney John Shockley told council members at their meeting that night that state law allows the deadline to be avoided if the polling places needed are “unavailable” and the law doesn’t define “unavailable.”
That’s a different argument than the cost-benefit analysis originally offered by staff.
“That ticked me off,” Altenburg said. “That’s so obviously not true.”
His petition, filed in Minnesota District Court, says he wants a court hearing so a judge can decide if he, and by extension Kiffmeyer, is right or if Shockely is.
Altenburg also asked the court to order the city to “correct information on the City website regarding the designated polling place” at MSUM and the polling place at Concordia.
Given his argument, Altenburg’s basically asking the city to post the polling places from 2017 since those are the only “correct” ones.
Asked if he really wanted those old polling places to be listed even though the ballot boxes and election judges will actually be elsewhere, he said he expects the city will explain the difference to voters, essentially admitting wrongdoing.
Asked if that would confuse students and cause them to show up at a nonfunctional polling place, he said that, having worked with students as an instructor, he knows they’re smarter than that.
By getting the city to admit wrongdoing, Altenburg said, he hopes to avoid having students come back to the council after the election and “beg or ask for their polling places back.”
Representing himself in court, he said he hasn’t heard back from the judge and wondered if he would since, not being an attorney, he may have made some mistakes in his filing.