This month’s issue of Minnesota Monthly includes something that’s a little unusual for us: a lengthy Q&A with Secretary of State Mark Ritchie. The Minneapolis Democrat was thrust into the national spotlight last year thanks to his singular role in the U.S. Senate contest between Norm Coleman and Al Franken.
Ritchie, who was first elected to office in 2006, is the state’s chief elections official. He was in charge of last fall’s contest and the historic Senate recount. He also sat on the state canvassing board, the five-member panel that presided over the recount and ruled on disputed ballots. In short, he’s had a busy winter.
I’d consider myself an avid consumer of news, but before I spoke with Ritchie, I read everything I could find on the Senate race, the recount, and the canvassing board. It was, to say the least, an interesting exercise. I learned a lot about Minnesota’s election system, of course—so much so that I soon became the least popular dinner guest in the Upper Midwest. (Who knew that other people don’t consider the history of absentee ballots a “hot” topic?)
In addition to that valuable bit of knowledge, my exploration of the outer reaches of the political-media vortex also taught me some important professional lessons, information that will serve me well when I decide that I’m done with Minnesota’s cold and conspicuous friendliness—and that what I really want to do is work as a political pundit.
First, I learned that, as a pundit, I always need to get my facts straight. For example, like most Minnesotans, I was under the impression that the state had a pretty good record of running clean elections. Boy, was I wrong. After careful consideration, after all, my fellow pundits declared that Minnesota was “ripe for election fraud,” and that strange things were afoot in such notoriously sketchy places as Two Harbors and Pine County.
Second, I learned that as a pundit, I need to be wary of popular sentiment. You can’t speak the truth to power if you simply go along with the crowd. Most Minnesotans said they thought the recount was run fairly and competently. But Dick Morris, heretofore not considered a keen observer of Minnesota politics, knew better. The recount, he said, “is a horrific sight that makes a mockery of the electoral process.” And if Dick knows anything, it’s how to make a mockery of the electoral process.
Finally, I should always make sure to dig deep to get the real story. Take the state canvassing board. Like so many others, I blindly swallowed its claims of bipartisanship. Though Ritchie is a Democrat, two judges on the panel were appointed to the state Supreme Court by Governor Tim Pawlenty. Wisely, my punditry brethren didn’t buy it: The canvassing board was “meek,” and, worse, all secret members of the Democratic Party. Why else would one talking head announce that GOPers “need to put Republicans on these canvassing boards”? This woman clearly knows something we don’t.
Just to make sure, we got Ritchie to go on the record. That is, of course, if that’s his real name.