Republican legislators sharply criticized DFL Secretary of State Mark Ritchie on Friday, accusing him of using his office to try to defeat a proposed photo ID constitutional amendment and adding a further complication to the issue's tangled legal and political trajectory.
"If it were to be found that the Secretary of State is being deceptive, I think there could be a recall," said Sen. Mike Parry, R-Waseca, an outgoing state senator and congressional candidate who led the charge at a rare summertime meeting of his Government Innovation and Veterans Committee on Friday. He mentioned the possibility of subpoenas or even a criminal investigation.
But Sen. Barb Goodwin, DFL-Columbia Heights, had a different idea. "I think what this was mainly about was to try to get Mike Parry some press because he's in a primary in three weeks," said Goodwin, a committee member who asserted that Ritchie has both a right and a responsibility to explain to voters the amendment and its effects.
The unusual hearing was couched in legal disclaimers because, at last report, there are two lawsuits before the state Supreme Court challenging parts of the proposed constitutional amendment. Ritchie and Attorney General Lori Swanson sent surrogates to Friday's committee meeting who said they couldn't say much because of the cases pending. Parry himself is a named petitioner in one of the suits.
Ritchie is a DFLer who has long opposed the election-law changes included in the photo ID amendment. They include a new system of two-step provisional voting, a requirement that valid IDs be "government-issued" and changes in verification standards that could limit Election Day registration. The Republican-controlled Legislature passed the package as a proposed constitutional amendment, meaning it must be approved by voters to take effect.
Parry, who faces a tough congressional primary against former state Rep. Allen Quist on Aug. 14, denied that he harbored any political motives in calling the hearing. He said he has heard complaints about Ritchie's activities and wanted to investigate them. He said Ritchie's public descriptions of the amendment, if shown to be untrue, could amount to violations of campaign laws.
"I believe he has a right, but to insert speculation without knowledge or backing, I believe that can be construed as campaigning against," Parry said of the case against Ritchie.
Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, said he was upset that Ritchie substituted his own title for the proposed constitutional amendment. Instead of the title selected by the Legislature -- "Photo identification required for voting" -- Ritchie selected this title: "Changes to in-person & absentee voting & voter registration; provisional ballots."
Thompson said that if Ritchie tried to argue that the title switch was not an attempt to influence the vote's outcome, "that could not pass a straight-face test in any court."
The main anti-Ritchie testimony came from Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, sponsor of the photo ID bill, and Dan McGrath of Minnesota Majority, one of the chief lobbyists supporting the measure. Newman -- saying he was appearing as a private citizen, apparently because he, too, is a named plaintiff -- cited newspaper clippings from Mankato and Marshall, Minn., in which Ritchie discussed the amendment and its effects.
"Is it a violation of his oath of office to travel around the state being an opponent to a piece of legislation on elections that the Legislature voted?" Newman said.
Goodwin responded: "As far as going out and telling people what he thinks this law will do, I think that is definitely his duty."
Ritchie was not available for comment. His office issued a statement saying he has a responsibility "to provide education about the changes being proposed to our election system." The statement added that Ritchie and his office "make a point of not urging anyone to vote one way or another."
Bert Black, Ritchie's legal adviser, told the committee that state law requires the secretary of state to provide a title for constitutional amendments. He said that in his personal opinion, the title was eliminated in a symbolic "veto" of the bill by Gov. Mark Dayton, even though governors cannot veto the language of constitutional amendments.
Anti-photo-ID groups have challenged the language voters will see on the ballot, and pro-ID groups and legislators have challenged the titles Ritchie assigned to both the photo ID and gay marriage amendments.
Parry said he will follow up by again seeking Ritchie's testimony or possibly taking further court action. Goodwin said she believes Republicans are seeking to silence Ritchie because "they're afraid of his opinion, because he's going to talk about the pitfalls of the legislation."
Jim Ragsdale 651-925-5042