Vote Hope 2008 :: 3 :: Mark Ritchie

Where are the opportunities for real change in the 2008 election? To find out, we spoke to some grassroots organizers, national leaders, and elected officials who are working for change.

Vote Hope :: 3 of 6

Protecting Elections

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Online-only: full interview with Mark Ritchie, Minnesota Secretary of State


Sarah van Gelder: Good. So, we're doing a piece on what our readers can look forward to in this coming election, apart from the candidate horse races. So, I wanted to interview you about that. You were elected a year ago was it? As Secretary of State?

Mark Ritchie: November of '06.

Sarah van Gelder: Okay. And you particularly had in mind election reform in your campaign, is that correct?

Mark Ritchie: Well, there were three big themes. Protecting the integrity of Minnesota's election was certainly one of them, and making changes in our system to make it more open and accessible and inviting was another one. And the third one was making sure that all of the services of this office are available state-wide and to everybody on an efficient and friendly basis.

Sarah van Gelder: When you look ahead at this coming election, the 2008 election, where do you see possibilities at the national level or at a state and local level for issues around election reform to come into play?

Mark Ritchie: The first thing is that you'll have a lot of opportunities to pick secretaries of state—the qualities and values and ideas of the people who are running will be very important. There will also be the election of local election officials.

There are proposals for reforms at the federal level, there is legislation moving, it's not clear what will pass, but how candidates stand on some of the key election-related issues will also be important.

Sarah van Gelder: What would you say is at stake? I think a lot of us sort of woke up to the question of election integrity in the 2000 election, but since then there've been a number of very troubling questions that have arisen. What would you say is at stake with this question?

Mark Ritchie: Some of these problems have been exposed to be part of larger strategies to affect the outcome of elections, so that's one thing that's at stake. The second thing is the ability of people to participate. We put a high value in this country on participation, and so, whether elections are administered in a way that encourages everyone or in a way that encourages only some people to participate while discouraging others, that's also at stake.

Finally, and this may be by far the most important aspect of this, there's the psychological side. If you feel like the elections are rigged, or your voice is not welcome, or if you feel that showing up to vote will subject you to harassment or intimidation, or if you feel like democracy is a sham—if any of these feelings affect your willingness to stand as a candidate, to work for a candidate, to help with voter registration, to be an election judge, or a poll worker or to vote, it will be a negative impact on the elections process and on the democracy itself.

Sarah van Gelder: Where do you see the most promising work going on in this regard?

Mark Ritchie: Well, I think that hope is being restored in Florida and Ohio and California and different places around the country. It's not necessarily partisan. For example, the governor of Florida, newly elected governor, stood up and said no more embarrassments, no more discrimination, get rid of these electronic computerized voting machines. Get us an optical scan system that will get rid of these embarrassments. (And that's the system we use in Minnesota, so I'm familiar with it.) And then he went on to say that discrimination against people who had committed felonies and were now free and had served their time completely was unconscionable, and pushed through a huge change in the enfranchisement of former felons. So, I think in Florida has taken some giant steps to restore trust.

Ohio has a new Secretary of State, Jeniffer Brunner, she's had to do everything from battling corrupt local election officials—some of whom have been convicted and sent to prison—to dealing with that state legislature, which has been very unhelpful. So, in Ohio changes are taking place, and Secretary Jeniffer Brunner will soon be conducting a top-to-bottom review of their election equipment, which, as in California, show many problems.

In California, Secretary Debra Bowen did a top-to-bottom review, exposed incredible vulnerabilities in the election system, but then she took immediate action to address those vulnerabilities.

Sarah van Gelder: How much has this change had to do with the political activism of citizens who've been concerned about black box voting and other problems, and how much has been just the integrity of the officials involved?

Mark Ritchie: Well, they're not disconnected. The Secretary of State's project, which really grew out of the grassroots work around elections, subconsciously helped recruit and helped elect Secretaries of State who have a commitment to restoring trust and integrity in the system. That act of electing a Jennifer Bruner, Debra Bowen, and others helps build momentum, so that when a governor of Florida decides to move in this direction there's a lot of momentum behind this direction.

As Secretary of State, every day I have the opportunity to make decisions to make the system more secure, more open, more welcome, more accessible, or to make the system harder, less open, less available. And so, I think the grassroots activism that was harnessed to help change the leadership in some states probably will have the greatest long-term impact, at least on these questions.

Sarah van Gelder: Do you think that all the electronic voting needs to be replaced in order to restore integrity, or is there a way to continue using digital voting machines?

Mark Ritchie: Well, in Minnesota, these things are illegal. We've never allowed them, never will let them, they were debated, people said ‘Are you crazy?' We also have taken a strong position that in national elections, that it's simply not okay to have voting conducted that cannot be directly verified. So far, we've not seen any computerized equipment that meets any basic elementary standard of security and ability to be recounted and trustability.

Sarah van Gelder: That includes the paper trails? The voting machines with paper trails, they also don't meet that standard?

Mark Ritchie: Right. You might be referring to the rolls of thermal paper records. But somebody who is administering records, or elections, probably would not consider that a paper trail, because a paper trail is something that you can go back over time and see what happened. And this is not the case.

There are many reasons why we like our system, and there are many of the same reasons why the governor of Florida junked his computerized voting equipment in favor of the kinds of machines that we use here, and New Mexico has done this as well, and many other states.

These concerns have also fueled people's desire to move to vote by mail. People are voting with their feet, so to speak, choosing to vote by mail.

So, other election administrators have come to different conclusions than Minnesota, but people here feel very strongly about this, let me put it that way.

Sarah van Gelder: The scandal about the dismissals of federal prosecutors evidently was linked to questions of voter integrity, but of course we've only gotten part way through understanding the depths of how far that system—

Mark Ritchie: Yeah, I actually don't believe that's true.

Sarah van Gelder: Is that right?

Mark Ritchie: I think it was linked to an attempt to create a smokescreen called voter fraud as the rationale or explanation to the public for attempts to pass laws to restrict the ability of some people to vote.

And so, you had prosecuting federal attorneys who attempted, desperately, to find those cases of voter fraud to help provide evidence underneath that smokescreen, and some were fired or reprimanded because they didn't generate the kind of evidence that the people using this as a strategy wanted to see.

You had others who objected to it. In Minnesota, our secretary of state attempted to get the federal prosecutor to join her in harassing the chief election officials in the two biggest counties over their putting a voter registration form up on the web page; he refused, and refused in fairly strong language.

So, from my point of view, I think it's more accurate to say that there were attempts to coerce state attorneys to create, and then promote in the public's mind, cases of voter fraud that weren't there, because they just don't exist. And the failure to create and then promote in the public's mind those so-called voter fraud violations led to disciplinary action against a number of them—some who tried desperately to come up with them, and some who had the ethical fiber to see that this was a political strategy and so they refused, or in the case of Minnesota, they didn't just refuse, they repudiated this effort.

So the attempts by the feds to find these cases and to prosecute people so they could then use that as a justification to pass laws to keep other people from voting, it kind of collapsed on them because they couldn't find the voter fraud cases, because they don't exist.

Sarah van Gelder: Any other particular thoughts you have about opportunities for positive change in this coming election season?

Mark Ritchie: We've been inundated with requests from other states for information about same-day or election day registration. A number of other states have adopted this, and so there will be more states using election day registration next year. In Minnesota we've been doing this for 33 years, and we're trying to go beyond it to what we call automatic universal registration. We currently have what I think a lot of states have, which is a kind of opt-in system for voter registration. If you go get a driver's license you have an opportunity to opt in, and there are some other ways you can opt in.

But in Minnesota, we're proposing that if you get a driver's license or government-issued ID at any time, like a driving training permit or a photo ID, you would be registered as long as you were legal. And that means not in guardianship or some special protection by the courts, not be a felon, and be an American citizen. You have the ability of several points to opt out if you don't want to be registered, but the burden of registering people will shift from being on the individual or the League of Women Voters, or whatever, to the State.

And if you change your address with the U.S. Postal Service, you don't have to stand in line or do anything to change your address again, you will be automatically re-registered at your new address with the option to opt out or to not use that address if you so choose.

But we are moving towards automatic registration deliberately, and we believe that's the future direction to begin changing the paradigm from voter registration as a barrier to voting to a less expensive, more open and more secure system of automatic voter registration.

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