Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie decided that eight years of long hours, accusations of stolen elections and the occasional death threat was enough. On Tuesday the Minneapolis DFLer announced he will step down at the end of next year, setting off an immediate scramble for an office that both Democrats and Republicans are eager to control.
"I will miss the many opportunities — traveling the state and learning and being with people," Ritchie said Tuesday. While rewarding, he said, his time in the office "has come at the expense of family and friends and other parts of my life, so I'm looking forward to just a little break."
Nineteen minutes after Ritchie's announcement, candidates started jumping in, eyeing a rare chance to become the state's chief voting official in a race with no incumbent. Minnesota's voting laws and election management, like those across the country, have become weapons in the brutally partisan voting wars over who gets to vote and how.
By day's end more than half a dozen candidates evinced interest in the race and more are expected to follow.
"It's going to be the most visible and expensive secretary of state's election in our state's history," said Rep. Pat Garofalo, a Farmington Republican who is considering a bid.
Spotlight on once sedate office
Ritchie rose to national attention in 2008, during Minnesota's months-long U.S. Senate recount battle between Democrat Al Franken and Republican Norm Coleman. The entire Senate election was counted, recounted, challenged and adjudicated, with Ritchie's every move under intense scrutiny.
"I come with a thick skin," Ritchie said, "and I know that was part of the deal."
Though some Republicans still question his handling of that bitter contest, the Minnesota Supreme Court pronounced the election clean and allowed the results to stand. Ritchie marks that period with pride.
He said other election officials told him that the nine-month recount, which ended peacefully, "helped to heal some of the wounds that had occurred in 2000," when Al Gore and George W. Bush fought over the counting of Florida votes in the presidential election.
In 2010, Ritchie found himself at the center of another epic election nail-biter, when the hard-fought gubernatorial race between DFLer Mark Dayton and Republican Tom Emmer was too close to call. The brickbats, praise and scrutiny started anew.
"Some secretaries of state don't ever manage a statewide recount. Mark oversaw two within a two-year period," said DFL state party Chairman Ken Martin, who at the time was managing Dayton's recount campaign. "His office did an incredible job of handling the logistics of hand-counting millions of ballots to ensure every Minnesotan's vote counted." That recount ended narrowly in Dayton's favor.
Last year, Ritchie's decisions — and his alleged partisanship — were questioned again when he changed the titles of two constitutional amendments put before voters by Republican lawmakers. This time Ritchie lost. The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that Ritchie did not have the authority to retitle the Legislature's proposed amendments. Though the original titles stood, voters ultimately rejected the amendments.
Dan McGrath, president of Minnesota Majority, contends that through Ritchie's time in office, he paid too little attention to what McGrath sees as the state's election problem — voter fraud.
"I do hope that our next secretary of state will show a little more concern for the integrity of our election system," said McGrath, whose group led the failed effort to require all voters to show state-approved identification at the polls. The state's courts have found no evidence of significant voter fraud in Minnesota.
Asked about his accomplishments, Ritchie led with one that gets little attention: making Minnesota tops in providing business services and digitizing that side of the office.
Race starts now
Shortly after Ritchie announced his retirement, former Hennepin County Elections Manager Rachel Larson Bohman said she intends to run. Bohman, who oversaw the 2010 recount for Hennepin County, stepped down from her job last month.
Three DFL lawmakers also are mulling runs: State Rep. Steve Simon of Hopkins, Rep. Ryan Winkler of Golden Valley and Sen. Roger Reinert of Duluth. Former DFL state Rep. Jeremy Kalin said he is talking to his family and business partners about a possible run.
On the Republican side, Kent Kaiser, who worked in the secretary of state's office when was it last in Republican hands, and Rep. Joyce Peppin of Rogers are considering bids.
Garofalo said he has already begun talking to activists about the job and"the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive."
Staff writer Baird Helgeson contributed to this report.