Some Things About Mary

Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer
Craig Lassig

Last week, when Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer fired off a letter of warning that City Pages' voter registration drive at the State Fair "may be in violation of federal law," she highlighted two defining characteristics of her six-year tenure as the state's top election official: open partisanship and a proclivity for overreaching.

In her one-page August 30 letter, Kiffmeyer cited a section of the federal elections code that prohibits "paying or accepting payment for voting or registering to vote." Because City Pages offered fairgoers a chance to sign up for a vacation sweepstakes along with providing them the opportunity to register to vote, Kiffmeyer argued, the paper's actions could be construed as "payment" and, therefore, against the law.

Never mind the tortured reasoning--you didn't have to register to vote to enter the sweepstakes--and never mind the fact that Kiffmeyer had no statutory authority, as this is a matter of federal law. Set aside the fact that the secretary of state's office, theoretically at least, ought to be more interested in encouraging voter registration than rooting around the federal codes to discourage it. Kiffmeyer's stated reason for writing the letter was the strange part.

She was, she declared, writing "at the request" of David Strom, who is president of the conservative Taxpayers League of Minnesota and a longtime associate of Kiffmeyer's communications director, Kent Kaiser. (Ironically, Strom now says his complaint about City Pages was merely an exercise in political theater and was not rooted in a belief that there was any meaningful violation of the law. For more on that, see Steve Perry's column, page 8).

So why did Kiffmeyer lend her letterhead and resources to an impotent partisan broadside? Because, as her record illustrates, that's simply what she does, as a matter of habit, protocol, and reflex. Despite the relative obscurity of her post, Kiffmeyer may be the most widely criticized constitutional officer in state government.

In no small part, this has been a function of Kiffmeyer's eccentricities. In a state where informality is the norm in government, for instance, she likes to be addressed by her subordinates as "Madam Secretary." A devout Christian, she has also raised eyebrows with public remarks complaining about the separation of church and state. The secretary of state's voter registration office was listed as an official sponsor of the recent Luis Palau evangelical crusade at the state capitol. Her husband, Ralph Kiffmeyer, a former state representative, is remembered by some for an ill-fated crusade to ban the sale of dildos and other sex toys.

One group Kiffmeyer has alienated consists of the people who must work most closely with her office: the county elections officials. Because Minnesota is a toss-up state, the election system is bound to be tested this year--and it may well fail that test. When Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, it imposed a complex set of requirements that mandated significant overhauls of state systems. As a result, the vast majority of states applied for and received waivers that would give them time to work the bugs out of the systems. Kiffmeyer was one of just nine secretaries of state nationwide who didn't apply. In addition, some critics charge, she has been unhelpful in assisting county officials with navigating the act's requirements.

"We're all extremely frustrated. At some point you just throw up your hands because we're not at the table. We're not considered a partner," observes Patty O'Connor, the director of elections in Blue Earth County and a former co-chair of the state's Election Administrators Committee. According to O'Connor, that marks a radical departure from the climate under the previous secretary of state, Joan Growe, who routinely dispatched staff to assist local election officers. "That all changed when Mrs. Kiffmeyer took office. We no longer work together. It's her way or the highway. And we can't take the highway, because we still have to do the work."

The complaint is widespread, and surprisingly bipartisan. While fellow Republicans are reluctant to openly pillory Kiffmeyer, some are brutal in not-for-attribution remarks. "Nobody has ever seen anything like this. She sees black helicopters everywhere she looks and she wants to put up as many barriers to voting as she can," one lobbyist and fellow Republican says flatly. "There isn't anyone who deals with her who doesn't see problems. If this election doesn't go well, I think she's going to be in big trouble."

By American standards, Minnesota has an enviable history of clean elections with high rates of voter turnout. Kiffmeyer, however, has expressed doubts about one of the main pillars of the system, same-day voter registration. While she has not publicly advocated its abolition in Minnesota (which would amount to political heresy), she has advised other states that it increases the risk of voter fraud. While charges and convictions for voter fraud remain scarce, they are at the heart of Kiffmeyer's political mantra. As a result, she has also pushed--both successfully and unsuccessfully--for more stringent identification requirements at the polling places.

Over the years, Kiffmeyer has protested, a little too much, at the accusations of partisanship. When the alternative weekly Pulse of the Twin Cities published a critical article about Kiffmeyer, Kiffmeyer's communications director Kent Kaiser wrote to complain about the author's "false" charge that Kiffmeyer "once brought in" Katherine Harris as a speaker at a campaign event. Kaiser went on to demand a retraction and a removal of the piece from the Pulse website.

The desire to distance Kiffmeyer from Harris was understandable. After all, as Florida's secretary of state, Harris presided over the disastrous 2000 election and thereby became a preeminent symbol for party hacks everywhere. That is hardly the sort of association that Kiffmeyer would want played up in the urban press, especially as charges of Kiffmeyer's partisanship gathered steam.

Strictly by the letter, of course, Kaiser was correct. Katherine Harris never did attend the Kiffmeyer fundraiser. But that wasn't because she was not invited; it was because the fundraiser was scheduled for September 14, 2001, three days after the 9/11 attacks, when all air travel nationwide was still suspended.

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