Secretary of state says he gave his campaign committee a list of participants in a program.
Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie now says that he personally gave his campaign a list of participants in a state-sponsored "civic engagement" program so it could send them a campaign newsletter that asked for a political contribution.
Ritchie, a DFLer, was elected on a platform of de-politicizing the office, which supervises elections. He has been under fire since two Republican activists who attended the office's publicly funded event filed a complaint over having their e-mail addresses turned over to Ritchie's political operation.
Previously, Ritchie had denied knowing how the campaign got the list. He now insists that it solicited contributions only to pay for the newsletter itself. But its text invites recipients to an upcoming campaign fundraiser.
Ritchie said on Tuesday that it was a mistake for his campaign to use the list and took responsibility, saying he has taken measures to ensure that people can easily "unsubscribe" from the newsletter and that it will from now on contain only news, not solicitations.
"The campaign should have checked with the groups and individuals who listed themselves in this public directory to make sure they wanted to receive my civic engagement newsletter," Ritchie said.
Newsletter started complaint
Last month, two long-time Republican operatives complained to the state's Legislative Auditor that their e-mail addresses ended up receiving a Ritchie campaign electronic newsletter that solicited contributions after they signed up for a nonpartisan civic engagement program through the secretary of state's office. They suggested the only place DFLer Ritchie's campaign could have obtained the addresses was through the program.
The complaint prompted a call for an additional investigation from two Republican state lawmakers. Ritchie said at the time that the list was public information but could not say how his campaign obtained it.
Ritchie said Tuesday that he personally provided a copy of the directory to his campaign and requested that those on the list get a copy of his campaign's civic engagement newsletter, which is distributed to about 12,000 individuals and groups whom he described as active in civic life in the state.
Ritchie said the newsletter often has a link through which readers can contribute to help cover the costs of the newsletter. His campaign, he said, has a campaign donor and potential contributor list that is separate from the newsletter list.
"It [the newsletter] is distributed as an information source on civic engagement in Minnesota, not a vehicle for solicitation," Ritchie said.
The Oct. 22 newsletter, however, invites recipients to an upcoming fundraiser and links to Ritchie's campaign website for anyone wishing to donate to "help me cover my campaign related expenses for this year."
New era creates issue
The list of participants in the civic engagement program was first sent out to the over 100 participants themselves, according to Ritchie's office, and then e-mailed to an additional 400 people and finally distributed at the Minnesota State Fair.
In a previous interview, Ritchie said the list is public information that can be accessed by anyone, including a political campaign. But he said at the time that he did not authorize its use by his campaign.
In an age when information can be quickly and cheaply disseminated, it has become a vexing issue to prevent or even define improper political use of government information.
"There must be a wall between constituent information compiled at public expense while representing the public and the transfer of that information for use in campaigns," said Steven Clift, a digital democracy expert based in Minneapolis. "Ideally, secondary use would be prohibited. Or, if an incumbent can use it, then everyone should be able to access it, including challengers."
Following reports of election irregularities and politicizing in Ohio, the National Association of Secretaries of State adopted a broad ethics policy encouraging "fair and unbiased election administration." But the association has no specific policy about establishing firewalls to keep information separate. A spokeswoman for the group said secretaries of state generally ascribe to their own state laws over such matters.