Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, who has long campaigned against the Republican-backed election changes under the GOP's photo ID proposal, was accused by GOP senators on Friday of crossing the line between running elections and trying to influence them.
A Senate committee hearing, led by Sen. Mike Parry, R-Waseca, who is also a candidate for Congress in the 1st Congressional District, focused on Ritchie's criticism of a photo ID constitutional amendment and his decision to rewrite the title voters will see on the November ballot.
Parry, Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville; Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Baxter; and Sen.John Carlson, R-Bemidji, led the charge at the State Government Innovation Veterans Committee in criticizing the DFL Secretary of State. Neither Ritchie nor Attorney General Lori Swanson appeared before the hearing.
The Republican-controlled Legislature voted this year to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would require in-person voters to show a photo ID, would set up a new system of two-step provisional voting for those without "government-issued" IDs, and would change eligibility and identity verification standards. No DFLers voted for the bill, and the two sides have bitterly contested the effect of the amendment, should it pass.
Parry said based on telephone calls and media reports, he is concerned that Ritchie is misrepresenting those effects as he travels around the state, and continues to campaign against it in his official capacity. He and Thompson were angry that Ritchie chose to substitute a new title for the amendment, which they see as another attempt to get voters to defeat it.
That title change is now the subject of a petition before the Minnesota Supreme Court.
The Legislature's chosen title was: "Photo identification required for voting." Ritchie, with the approval of the Attorney general, proposed this title: "Changes to in-person & absentee voting & voter registration; provisional ballots." He cited a state law which states that the Secretary of State shall determine the title of ballot questions.
Parry's witnesses were the bill sponsor, Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, and its chief advocate, Dan McGrath of the group Minnesota Majority. Representatives of the Secretary of State and Attorney General also appeared, but deferred comment on most issues due to pending lawsuits.
Hutchinson and McGrath complained that Ritchie has crossed the line by continuing to campaign against the amendment, and said the behavior merits further investigation by the committee. Parry, already a plaintiff in one of the photo ID lawsuits, suggested there could be further court action, subpoenas by the committee or even an attempt to recall Ritchie.
"This is a serious matter," Parry told the committee. He said he was acting due to complaints and not because of his upcoming Republican congressional primary, in which he faces former state Rep. Allen Quist for the right to face U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, the Democratic incumbent.
Newman, Parry and McGrath also questioned the accuracy of Ritchie's statements about the amendment -- particularly its effect on election-day registration, which is hotly disputed. They suggested that Ritchie could run afoul of a state law prohibiting false campaign statements.
Sen. Barb Goodwin, DFL-Columbia Heights, said answering questions about the amendment and what he believes will be the impacts "is definitely part of his duty. It is his duty to tell the people what the law will do."
Bert Black, a counsel for the Secretary of State, was limited in his comments due to multiple court cases pending on the issue of the amendment language and title. Ritchie could not be immediately reached for comment.