Al Franken had been officially sworn in as the newest senator from Minnesota in Washington for nine days. That’s how little time passed last year before the Minnesota GOP took aim at the man some still hold responsible for sending Franken to Washington in the first place: Secretary of State Mark Ritchie.
As Ritchie prepared to welcome secretaries of state from around the country to the Twin Cities for a National Association of Secretaries of State conference in the summer of 2009, the state Republican Party unveiled an ad campaign and attack website – RitchieFacts.org – that labeled the state’s top election official a “longtime far-left partisan” and an “ACORN ally,” and accused him of shoddy performance in running the office.
The message was clear, as GOP chair Tony Sutton said at the time: “I want the visiting secretaries of state to know the truth about Ritchie’s record: Mark Ritchie is not a subject matter expert on fair and open elections.” With that, the campaign to unseat the then-first-term secretary of state was underway.
Now, nearly a year-and-a-half later, Ritchie has won re-election by a handy margin and has presided over another close – and closely watched – election that ended in a recount. Following Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer’s concession onWednesday, it seems Ritchie has again emerged from the fray relatively unscathed.
“I think the people who started attacking me through radio ads in the summer of ‘09… made a very strong case to the public that I was somehow running a fraudulent elections system, and I think the public watched the recount process and said, ‘That’s not true,'” Ritchie said in an interview Thursday. “I felt very pleased, in a headwind year, to be re-elected with such a mandate.”
Ritchie’s 2008 performance and subsequent re-election didn’t stop the attacks from flying. There was a news release on Election Day taking Ritchie to task for supposedly failing to ensure voting machines would function properly. Three days later, Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer, Ritchie’s predecessor as secretary of state, took aim at Twitter posts in which Ritchie included linked to stories critical of Emmer’s chances.
“Can you imagine a referee in the NFL publicly stating that the Vikings have no chance in a game he will be officiating in a few days?” Kiffmeyer said in a November 5 news release. “It is incomprehensible and Ritchie’s conduct is way out of bounds.”
Ultimately, though the personal attacks on Ritchie cooled, criticism of the elections system persisted throughout the 2010 recount. With the gubernatorial election now settled, Republicans don’t seem likely to let their favorite DFL bogeyman off the hook – particularly with a new majority at the Legislature and caucuses united around election proposals such as voter ID.
“He’s absolutely a hyper-partisan,” Sutton told Cap Report after Emmer’s concession. “The guy’s no fool, and neither are we, so we’re going to be even more vigilant on Mark Ritchie.”
In conceding, Emmer maintained there were problems with the state’s elections and said he planned to work on passing photo ID legislation after leaving the Legislature. The GOP maintains there could have been thousands of fraudulent or illegal votes cast in the election, despite the state Supreme Court’s opinion saying that issue was resolved in accordance with the law.
“I don’t think the majority of people think 2008 ended up with the legitimate winner,” Sutton said. “If this race was closer, we would have seen the same thing,” he added. He later said, “I have more confidence in this result than 2008, because I know we kicked over every stone.”
To hear Ritchie tell it, though, kicking over every stone, verifying the election and making any needed fixes is exactly what he, the governor and the Legislature have done, all attacks on his performance aside.
Relevant issues “are always addressed, they’ve been addressed very carefully,” Ritchie said. “Partisan attacks are part of the partisan politics; they are not the same as a careful analysis.”
That is also more or less the view of Common Cause Minnesota’s Mike Dean. Whether it’s been specific charges of felons voting or the more generic desire to institute ID checks at the polls, Dean maintains that much of the current rhetoric is aimed at suppressing turnout and damaging the image of the elections system rather than identifying areas for improvement. Further, he says, there’s been little in the way of demonstrable problems exposed, whether by outside groups or high-priced attorneys.
“I’m saying this is politics,” Dean said. “It’s become: You launch as many complaints as possible against someone and see what sticks.”
Even if there aren’t specific instances of poor oversight Ritchie’s opponents can point to, their beliefs about the corruption of Minnesota’s elections remain steadfast. “Ritchie likes to tout us as the best in the nation. If that’s the case, God help us,” Minnesota Majority’s Dan McGrath said. “He has a cavalier attitude about the integrity of our election system. He may genuinely believe that there are not serious problems, but we don’t.”
Still, it’s hard to argue with Ritchie’s record, particularly after seeing two contentious recounts in his first term. Whether it was invalid voters and felons casting ballots or allegations he bent the rules of recount procedure, the issues raised were either resolved or debunked in most cases.
“It’s an affirmation of the 150 years of system that is built up. It’s why we’re the top voting state,” Ritchie said. “I think the recounts affirm why we’re perceived this way.”
Fellow DFLer Ryan Winkler, a House member who’s worked closely on elections issues at the Capitol, said he fully expects Republicans to make a run at changing election laws in next year’s session. But, he said, Ritchie’s performance in recent recounts and the state’s elections administration in general will be a strong argument against claims that the system is in need of wholesale reform.
“I think there is some legitimate room for improving the elections based on what we learned in this recount, just like there were after the last recount,” Winkler said. “Minnesota’s elections systems have been through two very demanding challenges to their basic operations, their basic ability to function, and they’ve come through very well.”