|Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie|
Mark Ritchie, the 21st Minnesota Secretary of State, oversaw the state-wide recount of the 2008 U.S. Senate race between Norm Coleman and Al Franken. After the official canvass of votes following the 2008 election, the margin separating the top two candidates was less than .5% of votes cast, triggering a mandatory recount. Ritchie, as chair of the State Canvassing Board, oversaw the recount. The widely publicized recount took 47 days. Under Minnesota law, the candidate losing a recount has a right to judicial review. Norm Coleman did request a judicial review, a process that took an additional six months.
State of Elections co-editor Laura Deneke recently spoke with Sec. Ritchie regarding the state’s electoral process.
Laura Deneke: What steps does your office take to prepare for an election?
Mark Ritchie: While the Secretary of State carries the title of chief election official for Minnesota, elections are run primarily at the local level. Townships make up about one-half of the roughly 4000 voting precincts in Minnesota. In most parts of the state elected non-partisan County Auditors do the bulk of the work preparing for and conducting elections. The Secretary of State’s office partners with local election officials by providing services that are most efficient at state level, such as large-scale computer systems that may be accessed at the local level.
Elections that are for offices wholly within county lines are canvassed and certified by county canvassing boards. Election contests for offices that geographically extend beyond the boundaries of a single county are canvassed and certified by the State Canvassing Board chair by the Secretary of State. If recounts are needed in any race that is multi-county or statewide these are conducted by the State Canvassing Board. This emphasis on local control of elections dates back to colonial times in Virginia and other early British settlements in North America.
Laura Deneke: Looking at the process of the 2008 U.S. Senate race and recount, how do you think it went?
Mark Ritchie: The process went remarkably smoothly. The basis structure of the recount process is built upon the idea of a State Canvassing Board. This board, approved by Minnesota voters as a constitutional amendment in 1877, is chaired by the Secretary of State who “calls to his assistance” two state Supreme Court Justices and two district court judges. Many of the key procedures for conducting the hand recount were developed in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when all elections were hand-counted. Every election year we have lots of recounts at the local level, sometimes as many as two dozen, so the process has been perfected over the years. What was the most important was the fact that Minnesota never abandoned paper ballots. This meant that every citizen of the state could follow the recount and see that the local and state officials were conducting a fair process. This level of transparency is the key to our success. I have inherited a very strong system that I would recommend to other states.
Laura Deneke: What changes have been made or are planned to Minnesota’s election laws?
Mark Ritchie: One of the great benefits of any hand recount is that we are legally allowed to look at things that we normally do not have the right to review. In this case, we had a chance to look into all aspects of our system at a statewide level. In addition, this specific recount has the benefit of millions of dollars being spent by both candidates on their own investigators and legal experts – perhaps as high as $20 million. Add to this mix the hundreds of journalists covering this story and you have an extraordinary opportunity to learn about all of the strengths and weaknesses. We would sometimes refer to this as applying an “electron microscope” to our election administration system.
One of the lessons learned is that the .5% trigger may be out of date for most elections. With the new optical-scan ballot tabulation equipment we believe that a .25% trigger would be completely adequate and potentially much less expensive for taxpayers who are the ones who pay for these mandatory recounts.
Another lesson learned was the danger of our very late primary election date – normally in the first half of September. We learned that a contested recount can take a long time – and in a late primary election you don’t have extra time. In order to complete, print, and mail absentee ballots in time to meet federal guidelines for overseas and military voters it is crucial to know the results of primary elections before the end of September. We have proposed that our primary election be moved to an earlier date, at least a month earlier, to make sure that if we do face a recount in a statewide race that we can complete the process in time.
One of the striking things discovered in the recount process is that the different rules applied to overseas vs. domestic absentee ballots resulted in different levels of success by the voters. Our rules for military and other overseas voters are much less complicated and this meant that many fewer were rejected for technical violations such as mismatched signatures or improper witnessing procedures. We have proposed to the legislature to update the domestic absentee ballot procedures to be more in line with military voting procedures. We do not have an early voting option in Minnesota, so it is particularly important that we get this right.
Laura Deneke: Do you feel the presence of civic groups such as the League of Women Voters, Common Cause and ACORN have had or will have an impact on elections in Minnesota?
Mark Ritchie: We do have a lot of civic groups in Minnesota and they all contribute to keeping Minnesota number one in eligible voter turnout in the nation. For example, the League of Women Voters works hard to make sure all newly naturalized citizens get registered to vote. ACORN has played an important role in making sure that Minnesotans who are losing their homes through foreclosure are not further disenfranchised. The Minnesota Family Council did absentee voting outreach to 5000 of their members and supporters, while Common Cause is a strong voice for keeping illegal contributions out of our local politics. None of these have much impact on elections in Minnesota however, for a number of reasons.
First, in Minnesota we have election-day voter registration so citizens cannot be barred from voting just because they have moved recently or they are new to the process. States that require voters to be pre-registered weeks in advance of elections do this to solely to make it harder for some voters to vote. This is not our tradition in Minnesota.
Second, there are many groups working in every election so there are lots of voices. In 2008, for example, the number of absentee voters dramatically increased because a very large number of groups aggressively recruited their members and supports. The McCain and Obama presidential campaigns ran effective absentee voting drives as did the National Rifle Association and the national political parties. While these large-scale efforts will have a proportionately larger impact compared to relatively small groups like the League of Women Voters, Family Council, ACORN, and Common Cause, they are still, I believe, fairly limited in their overall impact.
However small the impact, I do believe that all groups working to help eligible citizens participate more fully in our democracy are doing an important service for the state and the nation.
Laura Deneke is an editor for State of Elections and a student at William & Mary School of Law.