Kiffmeyer Watch: A Cold Florida

Will Mary Kiffmeyer leave Minnesota's election system looking worse than a hanging chad?

Mary Kiffmeyer is lucky she's not up for reelection this year. Minnesota's secretary of state has been the subject of questions about her competence and partisanship: Her current public standing seems to be somewhere between "unpopular" and "embattled." Yet even Kiffmeyer's backers might have difficulty voting for "Madam Secretary." Indeed, a flurry of events last week suggested that Kiffmeyer may not be up to the task of ensuring that the state will conduct a noncontroversial, hassle-free plebiscite on November 2.

Last Wednesday, former Independence Party gubernatorial candidate Tim Penny castigated Kiffmeyer in a Strib op-ed piece for enforcing an obscure law that threw IP candidates off ballots statewide. (Inexplicably, she'd neglected to follow the same guidelines under similar circumstances four years ago.) Penny noted that Kiffmeyer's office failed to include the law in a lengthy booklet intended to inform candidates about the state's various rules and legislation.

Ultimately, the Minnesota Supreme Court reinstated the IP's ballot access.

Also on Wednesday, news broke that Kiffmeyer's office had been unable to provide a number of liberal grassroots organizations with the voter registration cards they'd requested. The secretary of state's office, it seems, had run out of this precious commodity. That account turned out to be "bad information," according to Kiffmeyer spokesman Kent Kaiser, who bluntly explained that "somebody at the counter screwed up."

When Kiffmeyer appeared before a hearing of the Senate Elections Committee the next day, she seemed bewildered that questions and complaints about a lack of registration cards five weeks before a hotly contested election would generate such interest in the media.

The senate hearing hadn't originally been scheduled to address the registration form shortage. The main subject on the agenda was the snafus that county election officials are having with the new and malfunctioning voter registration system. (Minnesota is one of only nine states attempting to implement the protocols of the congressionally mandated Help America Vote Act for the 2004 ballot.)

Because Kiffmeyer had previously begged out of two previous hearings that sought to straighten out similar glitches, the senators made sure the timing of this event would not conflict with her schedule. As it was, Kiffmeyer arrived 25 minutes later than promised and stayed 15 minutes less. (She left to grant an interview with MPR.) During her initial absence, a pair of surveys was distributed, revealing that as many as 50 of the state's 87 counties had experienced problems entering registered voters into the statewide system.

When she did take her place before the microphone, Kiffmeyer, whose office has visited only eight sites for troubleshooting, shifted the blame to the counties for having old computers, inadequate bandwidth, and overprotective firewalls.

Dorothy McClung, an election official from Ramsey County and a former commissioner of revenue under Republican Gov. Arne Carlson, had expressed cautious optimism about the new program when she spoke with City Pages last month. "It's going well right now," McClung said then. "As we're starting to really press the system, we certainly all hope it continues to do so."

Apparently, it has not. McClung patiently noted in the hearing that after Kiffmeyer's staff had visited her office, "we followed your suggestions. There was no improvement. The issues are not getting better."

"I beg to differ," Kiffmeyer sniffed.

At the hearing, Sen. John Hottinger (DFL-St. Peter) produced a transcript of an Air America radio show, in which the host, Wendy Wilde, had called Kiffmeyer's office with a hypothetical Election Day scenario. What would happen, she asked, if a person voted by absentee ballot, and then changed her mind and wanted to pull the lever for a different candidate on Election Day? According to the transcript, three different employees from Kiffmeyer's office provided three different responses to the question; one said the Election Day vote would be a felony. None of the responses were legally accurate.

During her testimony, Kiffmeyer bragged that her office had issued more than a million voter registration cards to volunteers, yet her assistant noted that only 180,000 of them had thus far been returned. This leaves the distinct possibility that Kiffmeyer's office, and then county officials, will be deluged with completed cards between now and the October 12 pre-registration deadline. (Voters can still register at balloting sites on November 2.) Yet county officials claim that the slowness and unreliability of the system are already causing them to spend thousands of dollars a day on overtime and additional personnel.

"When are we going to have confidence in the system that the election is going to go smoothly?" asked Sen. Linda Higgins (DFL-Minneapolis).

"When working in any election, absolute confidence is not easy to come by," Kiffmeyer replied.

As you read this, the presidential race between George Bush and John Kerry is widely considered to be a virtual dead heat in Minnesota. Election Day is less than 625 hours away.

 
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