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Sec. of State Ritchie steps into voter ID battle

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Ritchie, Anderson
In this file photo during the Minnesota State Canvassing Board meeting on at the State Capitol Building in St. Paul, Minn., on November 22, 2010, Secretary of State Mark Ritchie (right) and Supreme Court Associate Justice Paul H. Anderson discuss the issue of "frivolous" ballots in regards to the upcoming recount in the gubernatorial race between Democrat Mark Dayton and Republican Tom Emmer.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

By ALEXANDRA TEMPUS, Associated Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) -- Thrust into the partisan hothouse of back-to-back statewide recounts, Secretary of State Mark Ritchie went out of his way to take on a referee persona despite the "D" after his name. But on the voter ID constitutional amendment now headed to the November ballot, he's openly taken a side.

Ritchie has steadily increased his opposition as the proposal advanced, to the point of arguing it will deprive voters of their rights. In the process, he has drawn blowback from Republicans and other supporters of the voting-law change, who accuse the state's top elections officer of going too far.

Ritchie acknowledged that he's stepped outside of his default "stay out" approach to politics.

"I've taken a very strong position in general that my job is to run the elections and be a partner with local election officials, and I stay out of other people's lives and campaigns and their work," Ritchie said. "But when something is about elections and about our basic election system, then I always take a more active role."

Voters will decide in November whether photo ID will be required to vote in future elections. Ritchie warns that hundreds of thousands of voters could find their ballots sequestered and maybe never counted if they don't have the correct ID.

Republicans say it's nothing but hype.

"For the secretary of state to be fear-mongering like that to the entire state of Minnesota. That's pretty blatant politics," said Rep. Keith Downey, R-Edina.

Before going full bore against the amendment, Ritchie joined fellow Democrat Gov. Mark Dayton to push an alternative system of electronic poll books. He said it would shut out fewer voters. But the idea went nowhere.

The secretary of state always has a tricky role. Officeholders run with party labels and often air partisan views during their campaigns. But once in office, most try to scale back the partisanship.

Ritchie was elected in 2006, unseating Republican Mary Kiffmeyer. She returned to politics two years later by winning a seat in the state House, where she led the charge this year for the voter ID amendment. House and Senate votes on the amendment fell almost entirely along party lines, with every Republican legislator but one voting for it and every Democrat voting no.

In his race against Kiffmeyer, Ritchie championed separation of state election policy and politics.

During the recount of the 2008 U.S. Senate election between Al Franken and Norm Coleman, Ritchie emphasized the participation of _ and typically deferred to _ the Republican-appointed justices on the state Canvassing Board. After that months-long process, he pushed for absentee balloting changes aimed at smoothing out future recounts. (One would come two years later when a close 2010 governor's race triggered another recount.)

Ritchie said he has been willing to be more vocal when he sees a need for changes to the election system. He said he took a "very aggressive" position in 2009 on pushing judges to educate felons about their loss of voting rights after it was revealed a convicted felon voted for Coleman in 2008.

Doug Chapin, an elections expert at the University of Minnesota, said Ritchie must balance dual roles as both an administrator of elections and "chief election policy officer."

Nonpartisanship is essential when it comes to counting the vote, Chapin said.

But he said it's no longer that unusual to see secretaries of state wade into political skirmishes, particularly since the 2000 Bush v. Gore Supreme Court case in Florida.ers on the amendment. A statewide coalition opposed to the amendment, which includes the League of Women Voters and AARP, said they wouldn't try to recruit Ritchie to participate.

"We have not actively pursued him, but he's been very clear to say, `Not my place," said Dan McGrath, executive director of TakeAction Minnesota, which leads the coalition.