Same Old Song and Dance
During the contentious 2004 presidential campaign, Minnesota Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer drew attention for an array of dubious election manuevers. She asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate Hennepin and Ramsey counties, alleging that election officials in those jurisdictions were using illegal voter registration forms. The DOJ said the forms were fine. The officeholder, who was first elected in 1998, also sought to knock a slate of Independence Party candidates off the ballot for failing to follow election laws. That action also failed when the Minnesota Supreme Court reinstated the candidates.
But perhaps the strangest episode from the 2004 election season was when Kiffmeyer sent out terrorist alert posters to polling places across the state warning voters to be on the lookout for men wearing perfume and muttering to themselves. Local election officials, for the most part, refused to hang the posters. The secretary of state's peculiar behavior led Democratic Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat, writing in the Star Tribune, to dub her "the least competent person to hold this important office in Minnesota history."
Kiffmeyer now faces her first re-election campaign since that strange political season. Three candidates are vying to oust the secretary of state from her post after two terms. The most prominent contender is DFL standard-bearer Mark Ritchie, who had raised $105,000 as of August 21—more than twice as much as the incumbent. Ritchie previously worked as president of the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, a nonprofit group aimed at creating sustainable farm policies. In 2004 he led National Voice, a coalition of organizations that sought to increase voter turnout across the country.
Two others are also running spirited campaigns. Independence Party candidate Joel Spoonheim is currently economic and redevelopment director for Brooklyn Park. Prior to that he worked as a city planner for St. Paul. Bruce Kennedy, a longtime advocate of instant runoff voting, is running as a "small i" independent. "I'm convinced that the person in charge of elections should not be tied to a political party," he says. Spoonheim, Kennedy, and Ritchie are united on at least one front: Kiffmeyer must go.
For his part, Spoonheim says that Kiffmeyer's partisan ways have alienated election officials. "She just does not work well with locals, people at the county and city level," he observes.
Kennedy decided to run after his lack of success in pushing instant runoff voting, whereby voters would be permitted to rank the candidates in order of preference. In 2004, the Republican-led state House of Representatives knocked down a bill that would have permitted Roseville to test the voting process. Kennedy alleges that Kiffmeyer worked behind the scenes to defeat the legislation. "I found out that the secretary of state was basically sabotaging what I was trying to do," he says.
As for Ritchie, he claims that the 2004 terrorist poster represents the partisanship and incompetence of Kiffmeyer's tenure as secretary of state. "Putting that poster up inside the polling place might have been partially designed to scare somebody away," he notes, "but really what it appears to be designed to do was to put a message in front of a voter who was inside the polling place that terror was looming right there in their little Lutheran church in Milan, Minnesota. They better vote for the president who's going to save them from being the subject of a terrorist attack there."
To that end, last week Ritchie called a press conference at the State Capitol to charge that Kiffmeyer was back up to her old tricks. Specifically, he alleged that the Secretary of State's Office had failed to implement legislation passed last year that allows tribal identification cards to be used as a legitimate form of ID for voter registration. The issue goes back to the 2004 election, when the state attempted to limit the use of tribal cards to those living on reservations. A lawsuit filed by the Minnesota affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union ultimately resulted in a ruling that the ID cards were legitimate, no matter the citizen's place of residence. Two years later, Ritchie claimed at the press conference, the Secretary of State's Office continues to mislead voters about the legitimacy of tribal ID cards.
The other issue that Ritchie highlighted had to do with "agent" delivery of ballots, whereby voters can designate someone to pick up and return their ballot. During the last legislative session, the law was expanded to include residents in domestic-abuse shelters and group homes. However, Kiffmeyer's office, according to Ritchie, has failed to take any steps to implement the change. "She picks and chooses the laws she wants to enforce, and she does it in a way that seems to reflect the desire to enable some people to vote and to make it harder for others," he says.
Kiffmeyer issued a statement rebutting the charges. She blamed the delay in implementing the new legislation on a rule-making process that was demanded by the DFL-led Senate and that wouldn't be complete until September 11. "They knew full well that this would cause a delay in implementation, and that's why I wanted these things put into law—so that they would go into effect immediately," the statement reads.
Ritchie, for one, is not assuaged. "It's complete and utter nonsense," he says. "It's like somebody saying, 'Mary Kiffmeyer's been stealing money,' and she answers, 'Absolutely not, I get my hair done every Tuesday.' It makes no sense."
(Last Friday, the secretary of state's website was updated to reflect the change in law related to agent delivery of ballots.)
Despite all the controversy, Minnesotans may still have Madam Secretary to kick around. With all three opposition candidates running stridently anti-Kiffmeyer campaigns, there is a strong possibility that they will simply divvy up the voters who want the incumbent ousted. Ritchie points out that in 2002, DFLer Buck Humphrey lost to Kiffmeyer by roughly 67,000 votes—almost exactly the tally collected by Green Party candidate Andrew Koebrick.
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