November 25, 2008 | by Jay Walljasper
What happens or doesn’t happen in Washington over the next two years may depend on who wins the Minnesota senate race, in which Democrat challenger Al Franken and Republican incumbent Norm Coleman are now separated by about 200 votes of 2.9 million cast. Democrats are just two seats shy of 60 in the Senate, which is the magic number at which they can shut down Republican filibusters against progressive legislation.
America is still waiting for results in two races. One will be decided December 2 in a Senate run-off election in Georgia, and the other depends on the laborious and already controversial outcome of a hand-by-hand recount of ballots in Minnesota’s Franken-Coleman contest.
Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie finds himself smack in the middle of what pundits say is the fiercest election in state history, and certainly the most expensive. Coleman, who won in 2002 after his opponent Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash, is famous as a combative campaigner. Franken meanwhile is deeply determined to win back the seat once held by Wellstone, his close friend. Both camps are raising large sums of money to cover costs of monitoring the recount and whatever lawsuits may ensue. Coleman’s election night margin see-saws up and down with each day’s recount results. The race may be decided by what happens to challenged ballots that will be reviewed by Ritchie and the State Canvassing Board.
It is Mark Ritchie’s challenge to ensure that every legitimate vote is counted in this hard-fought contest for which the whole country is waiting for the results. Already Ritchie—voted into office in 2006 on the Democratic Farmer Labor (DFL) ticket, as Democrats are called in Minnesota—has become a favorite target of right-wing commentators here and around the country. But he has also drawn complaints from the Franken camp for some of his decisions.
Each day Ritchie faces phalanxes of lawyers and recount observers from both sides as he tries to ensure the election results are accurate, fair and above partisan reproach. To that end, he appointed judges with ties to Republicans and the state’s Independence Party (but none with apparent Democratic ties) to join him on the board that will oversee the recount’ final results. Minnesota Governor Pawlenty, a Republican, has stated his public support for Ritchie and for the process despite complaints from the right-wing of his party.
Making sure that every vote counts is exactly the reason Mark Ritchie ran for Secretary of State. He realized the vulnerable nature of democracy in 2002 (not just in Florida, but in his home state) when Senator Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash two weeks before election day.
Ritchie, a former high-ranking official in the state’s agriculture department and founder of the Institute for Trade and Agriculture Policy, was shocked to learn that Minnesota’s then Republican Secretary of State tried to block people who had voted for Wellstone on absentee ballots from casting a new ballot for Walter Mondale, who succeeded Wellstone as the Democratic nominee in the race against Coleman. (Several years earlier, a Democratic Secretary of State had done just the opposite when a new Republican candidate for Minnesota governor was added to the ticket at the last minute after a sex scandal and went on to win a very narrow victory.)
This struck Ritchie—a longtime advocate for small farmers, sustainable agriculture, fair trade policies, and human rights—as deeply unfair. It was not just that these absentee ballots could conceivably have made a difference in the election, but that citizens were to be denied the right to vote. (The Secretary of State ultimately allowed Minnesota voters to cast new absentee ballots.)
Ritchie views voting as what he calls, “a civic commons, which is essential to good government and democracy itself. But that commons can be taken from us by measures that make it difficult for many people to vote.”
In 2004, Ritchie took a leave of absence from the Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy to lead National Voice, a non-partisan organization working to increase voter turnout across America in the 2004 election. (You may not know the organization but you might remember the “November 2” t-shirts seen everywhere in the weeks before election day that year.)
Ritchie then made his successful run for Secretary of State in 2006, and did all he could to turn out voters for this year’s election. It ranked first in the nation as it had in 2004. “Not withstanding Garrison Keillor’s claim that we are all above average here, that’s not the reason we have higher vote totals than other states” he explains. “It’s that we have a system that encourages people to vote.”
Central to that system is same-day registration, which means that you can register at the polling place on election day if you can prove you live in the precinct by showing an ID or even a utility bill. “Ten states have same-day registration or something very close,” Ritchie notes, “and most of them have among the highest voter turn-out.”
Ritchie also champions voting by mail —which is done in Oregon, most of Washington State and the city of Milwaukee—as a “great way for some communities, especially in rural areas, to increase voter turnout.”
He is interested to see how another new idea known as Instant Run-Off or Ranked Choice voting will work. This system, which has been adopted in a number of cities, including ten pilot locations in North Carolina and his hometown of Minneapolis, lets you vote for more than one candidate by ranking your choices in order of preference. The hope is that this system will bring fresh thinking into mainstream politics by making people feel more comfortable voting for third parties. It takes away the fear that voting for your favorite candidate (think Ralph Nader or Pat Buchanan in 2000) might help your second favorite candidate lose to an opponent (think George W. Bush or Al Gore) you really do not want to see in office.
Under Instant Run-Off Voting all top-ranked votes are tabulated and if no candidate wins a majority then the second choices of people who voted for the candidate with the lowest overall totals are tabulated. This process continues until one office-seeker has a majority of votes. The Irish president, Australian House of Representatives, London mayor as well as the Republican leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives, are elected this way—and the idea is gaining ground in places that do not use the proportional voting systems found in continental Europe and many other countries around the world.
To increase voter turnout in Minnesota, Ritchie is working on automatically updating a person’s voting registration when they send a change-of-address form to the post office. He found ways to streamline voting for the 80,000 Minnesotans living abroad, including troops stationed in Iraq, by allowing them to receive ballots by email that were returned through a special arrangement with FedEx. He’s also launching a campaign to reinvigorate the teaching of civics in Minnesota schools so young people can learn about the electoral system and why voting is important.
“Some people question efforts to expand the number of voters by saying democracy depends on the quality, not the quantity, of voters,” Ritchie says. “Both are important. Voters being informed is a very important element of the democracy commons.”
In an election year when voter suppression—bureaucratic hurdles to voting, especially for lower-income and first-time voters—has become a major issue in campaign coverage, Ritchie is well aware of the power of Secretaries of State to either expand or constrict the number of people participating in the democratic process. “It’s part of my job to make it possible for everyone to go to the polls and make sure their vote counts. You make decisions morning, noon and night that help or hinder people in voting.
“Helping people participate in elections is part of the historic process in America of extending voting rights,” he adds. “We expanded suffrage to women and Native Americans and, thanks to the civil rights movement, to all African-Americans and then to 18-year-olds. This is all part of a battle for enfranchisement that continues today. It’s an essential part of democracy—and of the commons—that everyone should be easily able to vote.”