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.
While the language of the proposed photo ID constitutional amendment is under review by the Minnesota Supreme Court, the justices have also been asked to take a hard look at the title.
Bill sponsors, Republican legislators and the Minnesota Majority, which lobbied for the photo ID change, petitioned the Supreme Court Thursday to order Secretary of State Mark Ritchie to use the Legislature's title of the proposed amendment on the ballot -- not the one Ritchie wrote.
"The Secretary of State has no legal authority to meddle in the process of presenting a constitutional amendment to the voters,'' said a statement from Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, sponsor of the bill.
When the Republican-controlled Legislature passed the proposed constitutional amendment to be submitted to voters, it chose the title: "Photo Identification Required for Voting."
Ritchie, with approval from Attorney General Lori Swanson, changed the title to "Changes to In-person & Absentee Voting & Voter Registration; provisional ballots."
Hutchinson's statement said Ritchie and Swanson, both DFLers, "colluded to usurp the Legislature's legal authority and to confound the voters."
The Court is already hearing a separate challenge to the language of the proposed photo ID amendment, and the way it differs from the ballot question voters will see. Opponents of photo ID say the ballot language is misleading and should be taken off the November ballot.
Thursday's petition is similar to one filed in connection with the proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. In that case, also, amendment supporters are challenging the title Ritchie has assigned to the ballot question.
In the ID petition, lawyers for the legislative sponsors argued that submitting questions to voters is a Legislative prerogative, and the executive branch -- of which Ritchie is a part -- has little role in it. The petition scoffed at the idea that Gov. Mark Dayton, in symbolically "vetoing" the proposed amendment, may have in fact vetoed the title, allowing Ritchie to write his own.
A governor has no authority under the Minnesota Constitution to veto a proposed amendment passed by the Legislature. But photo ID foes have argued that he could and did veto the amendment's title, which is a separate section of the bill.
In addition to accusing Ritchie of overstepping his constitutional bounds, the legislators' petition says the language he chose for the title is faulty.
"The core purpose and effect of the underlying Voter ID Amendment is to require voters to present photo identification," the petition states, but Ritchie's title is "completely void" of any reference to photo ID. The result could be to confuse voters, photo ID supporters said in their petition.
"Rather than cast a 'yes' vote on an amendment they do not understand, some voters may simply leave their ballot blank, which is counted the same as a 'no' vote," the petition states.
A spokeswoman for Ritchie said that he relied on the section of state law that says "the secretary of state shall provide an appropriate title for each question" and that the title "shall be approved by the attorney general." She would not comment further.