I. In Focus This Week
First Person Singular: Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie
After 8 years tackling elections, Ritchie set to take on the world
Minnesota Secretary of Stat Mark Ritchie was first elected to office in 2006 and was subsequently re-elected in 2010. Although he is not term-limited he has chosen not to seek re-election this year.
Much of Ritchie’s early career was spent in the agriculture and environmental fields working for a variety of ag-based organizations that advocated on behalf of farmers and often long-term sustainability.
It was his work with these organizations that helped lead him down the path to becoming secretary of state. He founded the League of Rural Voters and lead National Voice, a coalition of non-partisan organizations that worked to find new ways for voters to be involved in elections.
During his tenure in the secretary of state’s office, Ritchie has been extremely active in national-level election administration discussions.
He has been a faculty member for election law seminars conducted by the Minnesota Institute for Legal Education, Minnesota Bar Association, University of Minnesota, and William and Mary Law School.
Ritchie served as the president of the National Association of Secretaries of State in 2011. Also in 2011 he received the Dwight David Eisenhower Excellence in Public Service Award that recognized his promotion of peace through mutual respect, understanding and cooperation.
Although he now calls Minnesota home and has represented the state for years, he was born in Georgia and raised in Iowa and graduated from Iowa State University.
You’ve been the Minnesota secretary of state for eight years and aren’t term-limited, why did you choose not to seek re-election?
It is time for me to step aside and make room for a younger leader.
What would you say has been the biggest change you have seen in elections during your tenure?
The use of technology to address barriers that have previously kept some from voting. This includes the ability to email blank ballots to those in the military and overseas; accessible voting equipment for those with physical challenges; and the opportunity to provide voters with a myriad of online tools including voter registration, absentee ballot applications, and look-ups to check the status of registration and absentee ballots.
What was the most difficult time/issue you have faced (elections wise of course) as secretary?
Like many states across the country, we in Minnesota had to combat proposals that would have made it harder for eligible voters to cast their ballots. In 2011, there was a legislative proposal that would have required voters to register using a photo ID bearing their current address. A year after the Governor vetoed this, the proponents attempted to amend Minnesota’s Constitution to embed language in this fundamental document that would have radically changed Minnesota’s best-in-the-nation election system—repealing same-day registration. Fortunately, the citizens of Minnesota rejected this attempt.
What do feel was your greatest accomplishment and why?
We had two statewide recounts in one election cycle, including a U.S. Senate recount during which the eyes of the nation were upon us. In partnership with local election officials and the Minnesota Supreme Court, we conducted these in a timely and transparent manner. State and local staff worked round the clock to ensure that both candidates’ representatives and the public had the opportunity to follow the proceedings and view images of each of the disputed ballots themselves. Minnesota’s election system was put under a microscope and shined — voters from came away with renewed confidence in Minnesota’s elections system.
Is there anything you still hope to accomplish as secretary before leaving office?
One of the key things that Minnesota has done in the last eight years to modernize election administration is integrating the use of more data to update voter registrations and cleanse the voting rolls. We use a variety of resources to update registrations, including data from the U.S. Postal Service; the courts; the Department of Corrections; the Department of Public Safety; and the Social Security Administration.
I’m looking forward to continuing in this vein when Minnesota joins the Election Registration Information Center (ERIC), which will allow us to use data from Minnesota Driver and Vehicle Services Division and other states’ voter registration information to update voter registrations. It will also give us the ability to reach out to the more than 700,000 eligible Minnesota voters who are not registered.
What will you miss most about being secretary of state?
The wide range of duties — from assisting with naturalization ceremonies to encouraging high school seniors to vote. In particular, I will miss the day-to-day contact with the incredibly dedicated local officials and my staff who have made Minnesota tops in the nation in both election administration and voter turnout. I have worked with some of the most extraordinary county, city and township leaders and I will be looking to find new ways to maintain those relationships.
As an expert in the field of elections, where do you see the administration of elections headed?
Some states are moving to make it harder for some citizens to vote, while other states are removing barriers. It is not clear how the citizens will come to view this over time, but for now we will see a widening gap in terms of turnout of eligible voters in the country — and that is not going to serve our country as a whole.
The other trend is in a focus on security of election systems. After a decade or two of experimenting with computer-based voting by some states, many of those jurisdictions that moved in this direction have returned to voting on ballots that can be re-counted in ways that the public can observe and therefore gain greater confidence in the process of settling close elections.
What’s next for you, besides being able to sleep in on election days?
I am looking forward to cheering on the young leader who takes my place as secretary of state and finding new ways to serve my community, state and nation. One thing t I will be doing is helping the local committee that is working to bring the World’s Fair to Minnesota in 2023. We are planning on 10-15 million visitors and I will be working to make sure we’re well-prepared to warmly welcome them all.
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