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.

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.

 

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.

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