Kiffmeyer Watch: Party Girl

The love-fest continues between an ever-growing army of critics and the secretary of state. Two weeks ago, Mike Opat wrote an opinion piece in the Star Tribune that laid out the dubious achievements of Mary Kiffmeyer. The Hennepin County commissioner nicely summarized the complaints against Kiffmeyer that have become fairly routine in the last two months. He criticized her for rushing to implement a new voter-registration system under guidelines set by the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). And he questioned her for sending out a weird terrorism-alert poster (beware of men wearing perfume and muttering to themselves) that many said would scare people away from the polls.

But Opat's scathing piece--the DFLer called her "the least competent person" ever to hold the office in Minnesota--contained a new and troubling set of charges. One of Kiffmeyer's less-publicized battles, as Opat described it, has been with the election offices in Hennepin and Ramsey counties.

"The general thing was, she wanted a system that made it harder for people to vote," Opat says in a phone interview. And, indeed, the dispute has left some observers alleging that Kiffmeyer hoped to suppress the vote in these Democratic bastions. Although some of the criticism emanates from her DFL adversaries, Kiffmeyer's actions have provided ample fuel for the controversy.

The conflict--like so many ballot questions this campaign season--is somewhat convoluted. Back in March, Kiffmeyer, citing guidelines in HAVA, notified election officials from the two counties that they were in "blatant violation" of election laws. Her charges involved which voter-registration form should be used. Kiffmeyer's objection, it seems, was that the counties were distributing a form that required a photocopy of a state ID card. (The idea here is to match the exact name on the ID with the information on the registration roll--which should ensure compliance with HAVA.) The secretary of state's office had designed its own form that the counties were ignoring.

By March 15, Madam Secretary had filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice, demanding an investigation. County officials argued that Kiffmeyer's proposed sheet was harder to read, and noted that it contained more boxes to fill in. There was a concern that if an error were made on the more complex form, the registration would be invalid. Conversely, if a voter had registered with the county-approved forms, it was unclear whether those would be accepted.

In her letter to the DOJ, Kiffmeyer raised some more puzzling questions, which would have cast a cloud over the urban counties' registration process. Kiffmeyer, for instance, wondered if the definition of "Driver's License Number" included the use of any letters on a state ID, as Minnesota's does.

In June, Kiffmeyer received what looked a lot like a rebuke from the DOJ. Joseph Rich of the Justice Department's voting office replied to all parties, and noted that the counties were using forms adopted by the Federal Elections Commission.

"We have concluded that there does not appear to be a violation of HAVA or any other voting rights statute that we enforce," Rich wrote. "Accordingly, we have determined that any action by the Department of Justice at this time is not warranted."

Under John Ashcroft, the Justice Department is more politicized than at any time in recent memory. Further, given the conservative ideals she shares with Ashcroft and the Bush administration, Kiffmeyer might have found a likely ally. She didn't, and both forms must now be accepted by her office.

Among the more baffling parts of this showdown is why Madam Secretary would have invited such a comeuppance in the first place. In her initial correspondence with Hennepin County, Kiffmeyer's office expressed concern that requiring a copy of photo ID would lead to the "disenfranchisement of African American voters." She further claimed that the problem had been brought to her attention by the Minneapolis Urban League and the local League of Women Voters.

But at least one black leader doubts she had the interests of the disenfranchised at heart. Gregory Gray, a former DFL state rep from north Minneapolis, mediated a March meeting with Kiffmeyer, the Urban League, and the League of Women Voters. "We were hearing different messages on what would be counted and what wouldn't," recalls Gray. "The idea was, 'Let's get it straightened out.' We wanted to know if she would accept both cards." (Gray later expressed surprise that Kiffmeyer had contacted the DOJ after that attempted armistice.)

Had Kiffmeyer prevailed, Gray and Opat argue, thousands of county-approved forms could have been thrown out, and people would have been forced to reregister when they turned up at busy polling stations. (Minnesota's same-day registration policy already can lead to long lines during presidential elections.) Further, Kiffmeyer's challenge to the counties "does not help immigrants, first-time voters, or felons who are trying to become eligible to vote," says Gray. "It was all about things that are counterproductive to that."

Ultimately, the spat has transcended mere partisan sniping between state and local officials. Randy Johnson, an old-school Republican who chairs the Hennepin County Board, was left miffed, as well. "It's still not clear to us what she wanted from us," Johnson says, adding that he took offense at Kiffmeyer's assertion that Hennepin County was violating the law. "We weren't. She's the only one that thinks so."

Johnson shares the view that Kiffmeyer's challenge might have invalidated a large number of voter forms. And he's left wondering what her motivation might have been. Was it a ploy to suppress votes? "I don't want to say that. I think she wants to conduct fair elections," Johnson says. "It's a question of competency--there are those questions."

Kiffmeyer has repeatedly said that her goal is a clean election with high voter turnout. But some of her actions could be interpreted otherwise. News stories in recent weeks have begun to suggest a broader Republican strategy to limit Election Day turnout through registration challenges and state bureaucracies. Could Kiffmeyer be part of this?

"If you find out, will you let me know?" Johnson asks, noting that he was one of Kiffmeyer's early supporters and contributors when she first sought office.

"I don't know the internal workings of the secretary of state's office," he continues. "I think she's been getting bad advice. I hope she starts getting better advice."

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