In 1968, when America was as politically divided as it’s ever been, Mark Ritchie didn’t vote. He wanted to, but he couldn’t. He was 16. The required age was 21.
That’s changed. But Ritchie, as Minnesota’s secretary of state, is still obsessed with democratic participation. “Let me show you something,” he says one afternoon in his office, pulling a framed print of the Declaration of Independence from behind his large wooden desk. Four years ago, Ritchie arranged for one of the original copies to be displayed at the Minnesota History Center. “When people saw it, they started crying,” he says. “There’s an emotional connection to these documents that define us.”
Now Ritchie has arranged for an original copy of the Constitution to be displayed at the Minnesota History Center from April 3 to July 4. He’ll flank it with the two original Minnesota constitutions—yes, two. Republicans and Democrats insisted on writing their own versions. They later reconciled. “People want to debate the Constitution,” Ritchie says, “and there are efforts to amend the state constitution. Well, here they are—take a look.”
Ritchie, who trained to be a high-school history teacher before working in Governor Rudy Perpich’s administration on agricultural issues, is the kind of American-history buff who vacations at Williamsburg. He knows the political battles that were fought to create the Constitution and he knows who won. That’s why he bristles at the current legislative push to require a photo ID to vote.
“Restricting the right to vote is similar to the original debate about restricting worship,” he says. “Some said worship was a privilege. James Madison said no, it’s a right—it’s not up to the government to define it as a privilege. And voting is just the same.”
Many Minnesotans know this instinctively, Ritchie says, even if they don’t know the history. The state’s voter turnout is famously the highest in the nation. “That’s our brand,” he says. “We all love this place, and we know that loving something demands taking care of it.”
THREE RECOMMENDATIONS FROM MARK RITCHIE
1. Pauline Maier’s book Ratification. “It shows how close we came to not having a Constitution.”
2. The Blue Book, an annual guide to Minnesota government. Go to “Quick Links” at sos.state.mn.us.
3. Be an election judge, as early as 16. “Get paid, get out of school, see democracy at work.”