Minnesota's secretary of state is our state's chief elections official. His duty to impartially administer elections requires him -- more than any other constitutional officer --to remain above the fray of partisan politics.
Yet on the proposed voter ID amendment, which he opposes, Mark Ritchie has replaced the Legislature's straightforward title with a fog of bureaucratic gobbledygook.
Instead of "Photo identification required for voting," voters will now read "Changes to in-person & absentee voting & voter registration; provisional ballots."
Say what? And notice that the requirement of a photo ID to vote -- the amendment's core idea -- has just gone poof!
Ritchie pulled a similar stunt on the marriage amendment, substituting a title that polling shows will likely push the vote toward his favored result.
The Star Tribune has exhorted Ritchie to "do everything possible to avoid politicizing" his office. Noting his record of vocal opposition to the voter ID amendment, it echoed critics' "legitimate questions" about whether he is campaigning against the measure under the guise of informing local officials.
Regarding the amendment's new title, the Pioneer Press wrote that "Ritchie ... had to go deep into the Orwellian playbook to come up with that one." "What explains this bizarre formulation that obviously seeks to obscure the initiative and confuse the voter?" it demanded.
Scratch beneath the surface and you'll find the answer.
Ritchie was elected in 2006 with the help and financial support of the San Francisco-based Secretary of State Project (SOS), an independent 527 group cofounded by former MoveOn.org leader James Rucker and funded by ultra-left-wing kingmakers such as George Soros. The SOS campaign targeted seven swing states, and Ritchie was its poster boy. His donor list was studded with the names of progressive activists from New York and California.
Why should Left Coast elites care who is secretary of state in Minnesota? USA Today explained: "Secretary-of-state positions are a "new front" in the "battle for political control," because they are "the obscure but vital state offices that determine who votes and how those votes are counted."
SOS cofounder Becky Bond took credit for Ritchie's victory. "Dollar for dollar, our model was one of the most effective political investments in the cycle," she wrote on the SOS website. And Ritchie wrote: "I want to thank the Secretary of State Project and its thousands of grass roots donors for helping to push my campaign over the top."
The online journal Politico predicted that SOS victories like Ritchie's would bear future fruit by creating a new "administrative firewall" for Democrats in battleground states.
Fast-forward to 2012. Today, Ritchie faces an electorate that favors a voter ID requirement by at least two to one.
What's an activist secretary of state to do? The Pioneer Press speculates as follows: Since a nonvote on an amendment is the equivalent of a "no" vote, Ritchie -- by essentially rendering the proposed amendment's title unintelligible -- may hope "to so confuse voters that they simply throw up their hands and skip this ballot item altogether."
Ritchie knows partisan politics is strictly off-limits in his job. He acknowledged this in a letter to Lorie Gildea, chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court, which will hear a legal challenge to his actions next week.
"As the State's Chief Election Official," Ritchie wrote, "I have the ministerial duty to ensure that the ballots are properly printed, not to take a side as to whether a ballot question proposed by the Legislature accurately or completely represents a Constitutional amendment under consideration."
Amen to that.
But Ritchie has chosen a different course.
In a hyperventilating, stem-winder speech about the amendment at the DFL state convention in June, he fumed that "it is an affront to us to put this in front of the public." He mocked its title "photo ID" as "ridiculous."
Ritchie went on to compare his opposition to voter ID to the Union Army's brave stand against the benighted Confederates at the Battle of Gettysburg. There, he said, Minnesota soldiers "saved" the Constitution and defended "liberty and justice for all." Now, he thundered, Minnesotans have a chance to do it again.
Got that, Minnesotans? The huge majority of you who support voter ID are like slave-holding Confederates who thirst to wipe out "liberty and justice" in our state.
Some impartial arbiter!
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Ritchie's letter to Gildea was submitted in connection with the League of Women Voters case. It's at www.scribd.com/doc/97204540/Letter-From-Secretary-Ritchie-2-61412.
In preparing this column, I've drawn some from my original column on Ritchie and the SOS Project, dated Nov. 13, 2008.
Katherine Kersten is a senior fellow at the Center of the American Experiment. The views expressed here are her own. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.