Ritchie resumes a familiar place in political hot seat

After presiding over two tumultuous recounts, he now faces criticism over decision to change titles of two ballot amendments.

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Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie talked about the possible complications from the passage of the Voter ID bill Wednesday, April 4, 2012.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie campaigned for office six years ago pledging that he would halt the "playing politics with the office." And now the state's highest court will decide whether he is doing just that.

With his every move scrutinized, Ritchie, a DFLer, opted to change the titles of two ballot amendments that would ban same-sex marriage and change the state's voting system to require photo IDs and institute provisional balloting at the polls. Opponents say Ritchie's wording is a clear injection of the bias he claims he wants to keep out of the office, but Ritchie says he is describing the amendments accurately and is within the law.

"Is it uncomfortable to be the object of anger and controversy?" Ritchie said. "Yes. But I'm very thick-skinned." Ultimately, he said, "following the law is a very comfortable position."

On Tuesday, the Minnesota Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on whether the photo ID question should appear on the ballot at all. Amendment opponents say the wording is overly simplistic and misleads voters. Later this month, it will hear arguments over whether Ritchie properly changed the marriage amendment title.

In the court case to be heard on Tuesday, amendment opponents sued Ritchie to stop the photo ID question from appearing on the ballot. They say the amendment question lawmakers wrote misinforms about all the ways it would change voting in Minnesota.

Ritchie told the court he would not defend the question. His duty, he said, was to see ballots printed, "not to take a side." Republican legislators and groups supporting the amendment will argue the question should stand.

But Ritchie has taken a side on amendment's title. This summer he told activists at the DFL state convention that it was "ridiculous" to contend the amendment just requires voters to present identification.

Last week, he announced that the amendment's title would no longer be "Photo Identification Required for Voting," as the Legislature wanted. Instead, Ritchie said the title would be "Changes to In-Person & Absentee Voting & Voter Registration; Provisional Ballots." Amendment supporters may yet sue over that.

The title of the marriage amendment went through a similar metamorphosis. GOP lawmakers' chosen title was "Recognition of Marriage Solely Between One Man and One Woman." Ritchie has titled the amendment "Limiting the Status of Marriage to Opposite Sex Couples." The Supreme Court will hear arguments over that on July 31.

DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, DFL lawmakers, and the DFL secretary of state who held the office for decades, say Ritchie is on solid ground. State law gives the secretary of state -- not the Legislature -- express authority over ballot measure titles.

Amendment supporters, GOP lawmakers and the former GOP secretary of state say Ritchie is creating a constitutional problem by inserting politics into the title. The constitution gives lawmakers exclusive authority over the wording of the constitutional amendment questions.

'Not a legislator'

"When you are the secretary of state, you are not a legislator. You are an administrator," said former Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer said. She's a Republican who won a House seat after Ritchie ousted her in 2006 and sponsored this year's photo ID measure. "I have earned the right to legislate. And he has not."

Ritchie said the law tells him what he must do and it tells him he "shall" title amendments.

"How other people might perceive it might be the problem of a carpenter with a hammer perceiving everything as a nail," he said.

Ritchie has become a divisive figure but accustomed to the glare.

The first general election he administered resulted in the 2008 U.S. Senate recount between Democrat Al Franken and Republican Norm Coleman. Some Republicans still claim he stole the election for Franken but, "the consensus of election law scholars is that recount was handled in an extremely fair and transparent way," said Rick Hasen, an election law professor at the University of California, Irvine.

Fritz Knaak, a Minnesota Republican attorney who represented Coleman, said Ritchie gave a "solid performance" in both the Senate recount and the 2010 gubernatorial recount.

This time, Knaak holds a different view. "I think there's some game-playing going on," he said. "He is a partisan Democrat and he does have a point of view. I think he is trying to use the office to affect that."

Former Secretary of State Joan Growe, the DFLer who held the job from 1975 to 1999, disagrees.

Ritchie "has done a remarkably good job," she said. "Quite frankly, if he were leaning toward the Democrats ... I would have a problem with that."

Filling out the last half of his second term, Ritchie, 60, said he still finds the job a "great privilege" despite the death threats he sometimes encounters. He said he will not decide whether he will run again until after the Novembr election.

A history buff and a government geek, Ritchie has dug through archives to read newspaper accounts of what lawmakers intended a century ago and is taking statistics and government finance classes in his spare time.

Ritchie's also a talker -- he rarely uses 10 words when 10 dozen will do. And his words about his office are always passionate.

"Our job is 100 percent of the voters, 100 percent of the businesses, 100 percent of the people who might want to be appointed to an open appointment position," he said recently. "That means everybody."

Staff writers Jennifer Brooks contributed to this report. Rachel E. Stassen-Berger Twitter: @rachelsb

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