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.
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You’ve come out against a bill that would require a voter to present an ID to vote. Why? The proposal would force county governments to add work and expense with no money, so this was a huge unfunded mandate, completely out of line given the current economic crisis. But the bigger problem is that no one has ever impersonated a voter in a polling place in Minnesota in 150 years of record-keeping on elections. In Minnesota, we’ve been very reluctant to create huge new government bureaucracies for things that don’t exist.
How did your office prepare for the Senate election? Did you pay attention to polls examining that race? I wish I could say that I did pay attention, but it would not be true. But I have a head of elections, Gary Poser, who not only predicted the recounts [in the U.S. Senate contest and the state Supreme Court primary in September] but also prepared for them. So I was smart enough to hire an elections director who knew this was coming.
Talk about that night. At what point did you know there was going to be a recount? Right away. And, actually, we had just done the statewide recount [in the primary for the State Supreme Court race] in three days with no fuss, no muss. And the election professionals thought of it as good practice. So there wasn’t a lot of drama.
The ballots were recounted at 107 sites all over the state. What went into the decision to use the local officials rather than doing it at a central location? Our whole approach has been that the local officials run the elections and we’re their partner. Generally, we always think: What can we do to partner? Local election officials are professionals. Some are 30-year veterans. They’ve done many, many recounts. These questions—of voter intent, of ballot security—they know them. It’s in their blood.
One of the issues that came up in the court case had to do with whether different standards were used in accepting absentee ballots. Was that ever a concern in deciding to do it the way you did? No. No. No. It’s a bogus argument. It’s a completely bogus argument. The law is so precise and clear on voter intent—and on the rules for what’s accepted and not accepted in terms of absentee ballots. The bigger issue [with errors in the handling of absentee votes] was the doubling of the absentee votes. And absentee voting doubled because people want to vote early.
Before the recount started, you came under fire. Conservative media outlets in particular accused you of being “hyper-partisan” and.... There were eight-page memos. Letters from Dick Morris. There was an effort to cast a shadow over the process, which is the strategy.
So this was something you expected? I didn’t expect it because I didn’t really know what was going to happen. But I did know the playbook said that in close elections, casting doubt over the election was a strategy for trying to control or manipulate the outcome of the election. A couple of years ago, there was a New York Times Sunday Magazine article on how Karl Rove approached judicial elections. That article is a good guidebook on the strategy. And that strategy was pursued in a very disciplined way in Minnesota, and continues to be. That’s how it goes in a free society; people have a right to do that. For me, there was a cross-over point when it went from attacking me—that’s fine, I’m fair game—to attacking, with untruths (sometimes we call those lies) local election officials. And I drew a line at that. You can attack me all day long, but when you tell a lie about a local election official, I’m going to say something. I’ve been consistent in that. I learned some lessons about how lies are planted in the media, and how if they are planted a certain way they really do stick. I’ve learned how this game is played. And I am occasionally stunned that certain lies continue to get repeated by people who know they are lies.
There was a lot of stuff repeated even though it was easily disproved. I consider it intentional. But I have to say that after the first two weeks, the bulk of the reporting was intentionally thoughtful and wonderfully informative. The papers tended to divide their coverage into stuff about the technical matters and to articles about the political matters. And that was really smart.…Generally speaking, I thought the coverage was great.
What did you make of the Wall Street Journal editorial intimating that the fix was in to make Franken the winner? They have a corner on writing about Democrats stealing elections. They are known for it, and you expect them to be the most extreme. There was an attempt to put a cloud over the process. It was just a sort of classic Wall Street Journal perspective on how Democrats steal elections. There’s not much you can say about that stuff. And my approach has been that I just don’t respond to it.
How was your experience on the state canvassing board? It was fabulous. I just wanted the top people in the state, and I feel like I got them. [State Supreme Court justice] Barry Anderson had a great deal of experience; he had been a Republican Party lawyer, he really knew what you were supposed to do. I got a newfound understanding and appreciation of the system and the approach the justices and judges took. Pattern, precedence, consistency—that way of thinking was central to doing this right. I can’t overstate it. The judges’ approach really made it possible. And then the absolute devotion to doing what was best for the state and for the public. I’ve said it a lot of times, but I really mean it: When those judges walk through the door, or when they put on a robe, they are thinking about the common good.
What will you change next time there’s a recount? Many of the procedures that I inherited were exactly what was needed. Others reflected an early era, and things have changed. For example, there were moments when I felt the attorneys for the two candidates had more power than [local officials and the state canvassing board], and that imbalance led to things that were threatening to the whole system. For instance, while there were really only about 1,000 ballots that were ultimately challenged—and only 14 of those ended up disputed—the system allowed the lawyers to challenge almost 7,000, and then withdraw their challenges. From their point of view, that’s no big deal. But it was a big deal for the system. There needed to be a recognition that it was getting out of hand. And there was. There were a couple days of drama, but we found a solution to rebalance that power. But there were moments when our system really could have blown up, when it could have been like Florida if had gotten really out of control.
Polls indicate that most Minnesotans thought the recount was well run. What kind of feedback do you get when you’re out in public? People stop me all the time. And their main thing is that they felt it was done right. They have a Minnesota pride thing. That’s the highest form of compliment, and it’s been the most gratifying thing for me, because that’s what we, our staff, the local people, and the justices wanted. People perceive that it was really fair. All we did was count the votes.
And then they ask you about specific ballots? That’s what’s so great. They say, “What about such-and-such ballot, don’t you think it should have been thrown out?”
Andrew Putz is the editor of Minnesota Monthly.