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Man in the Muddle

When Minnesota’s Senate race resulted in a virtual tie, Secretary of State Mark Ritchie found himself in the middle of the dispute over the winner—and a debate about the electoral process itself.

Man in the Muddle
Photo by Todd Buchanan

(page 1 of 2)

If you had mentioned the name Mark Ritchie to most Minnesotans prior to November 4, 2008, you probably would have been greeted with a blank stare. Before being elected Secretary of State in 2006, after all, the Minneapolis Democrat had never held public office. For the previous 20 years, he had worked as an activist and served as the president of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, a nonprofit group that works on sustainability issues affecting rural communities. It was not exactly a recipe for becoming a household name.

Ritchie’s profile got a bit of a bump after the first Tuesday in November, however, when it became clear that the country’s most hard-fought Senate race, between Republican Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken, had resulted in the country’s closest Senate election.

You know the rest of the story: A statewide recount followed, and in early January, the state canvassing board, the five-member panel that oversaw the recount and ruled on disputed ballots, certified Franken as the winner—by 225 votes. (Not that it ended things, of course. Coleman went on to file a lawsuit and, as of press time, is expected to appeal the three-judge panel’s decision in that case to the Minnesota Supreme Court.)

As the state’s chief election official, Ritchie had a singular role in this drama. He oversaw the recount and sat on the canvassing board that decided on disputed ballots. In this interview, Ritchie offers his thoughts on how well it all worked, what he’s learned, and whether you should trust the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal.

In February, you gave a speech about the Senate-race recount to an organization of your colleagues from other states. What did they most want to know about your experience? The decision to have local election judges perform the recount was a very important decision from our point of view, and other secretaries recognized that immediately. That’s one thing everyone wanted to know about. The second thing was the structure for our canvassing board. Every state is different … and the media has reported this dramatically differently. Some media have reported [the structure of the canvassing board] very inaccurately, and some have reported it very accurately. If people just read Wall Street Journal editorials or listen to Rush Limbaugh, they think it was a bunch of Democratic flacks. The third thing they wanted to know was how much debate there was on the canvassing board. It looked like millions of sheets of paper and a lot of emotion. They were flabbergasted when I told them there were just 14 disputed ballots that came down to 3-2 votes [among canvassing board members]. That’s out of 3 million ballots. This was not a disputed election. This was a close election.

Did you watch any of the recount trial? I watched when I could. I tried to catch important parts at night. And I’ve tried to read the state Supreme Court rulings that have been involved. My staff has been active, giving testimony, and we’ve been asked to do a lot of things by the judges and the two candidates. So I’ve followed the work flow.

One of the things that came up during trial, and during the recount, is absentee ballots. More than 10,000 were initially rejected, and the obvious question is: What’s the problem with Minnesota’s absentee ballots? Out of 300,000 total absentee ballots, about 12,000 were initially rejected. I think when all is said and done, about 2,000 will have been rejected improperly, and 10,000 will have been rejected properly, but in a heartbreaking way. By that I mean the person forgot to sign the ballot envelope, or the ballot came in a day late…. But there are other problems that are directly linked to trying to send 300,000 ballots out to 4,000 local places for 30,000 people to process in the last hours of Election Day.

I don’t think most people know how that works. Explain. Minnesota has a process that served us well when we were a smaller state with fewer absentee voters, but it no longer serves us well. You do a lot of paperwork to apply for an absentee ballot, then once your application is approved, you receive the ballot. Then you fill it all out and then get a notary or another Minnesota voter to witness it, and you mail it. On Election Day, it gets delivered to one of the 4,000-some election places around the state, the place where the voter has their residence. During the day, generally after the last delivery of mail, the election officials—always two of them, one from each party—sit down and open them and try to determine if everything is correct, if it’s the right ballot in the right place, that kind of stuff. Then, if they agree, they run them through the machines….

And all this is happening during the busiest time at the polls on election day? Exactly. So one thing that happens is that ballots sometimes get delivered to the wrong place, and they’re supposed to be for another precinct so they don’t get handled right. Nothing happens to them.… Or you may have the situation where people look at a ballot and say, “I’m not sure the signature matches, so this is not a valid ballot.” Or somebody thinks the absentee voter wasn’t registered, but in fact they were.

Is the absentee ballot unnecessarily complicated? Oh, yeah. When you compare the absentee ballots that come from overseas voters to the domestic ballots, you find a lot fewer mistakes. The overseas ballot is a lot less complicated and a lot less subject to errors by voters…. This is one of the problems created by having a huge number of people using the absentee voting process as an early voting mechanism. The complexity of how we handle those votes has caught up with us. The recount, bless it, has given us a microscopic look at these problems and the political momentum to address them.

You’ve offered several proposals to change how the state runs its elections: early voting, holding primaries earlier in the year, establishing a higher threshold for automatic recounts. How optimistic are you that those ideas will get through the Legislature? I think it’s fair to say there’s good movement in the Legislature, and the governor has been speaking positively about the things he’s been asked about. In my conversations with him, he’s said he’s seen the success of other states, and that shows that [early voting] can be done well, and that we should try it out.

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