Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, the state's chief election official, insists that he's not taking sides on the proposed voter ID constitutional amendment.
But Ritchie has been speaking publicly — and often critically — about how a requirement for voters to show photo identification at the polls would change the state's current election system. That has amendment supporters crying foul.
Ritchie, a Democrat, has made regular trips around the state to talk to city, county and township officials about the voter ID constitutional amendment and its potential effect. He said Minnesotans have a lot of questions and concerns and the amendment.
Last week Ritchie visited Blue Earth and Brown counties.
"I think the fact that this is being proposed for the Constitution, so it can never be changed by the Legislature or by the Minnesota Supreme Court, is a big deal," he said. "This is not like legislation. This is forever."
Ritchie said the biggest concern among local government officials is the added annual cost of the changes that will include a new system of provisional balloting that likely would drive up property taxes. Ritchie said the lobbyists for townships estimate they would see up to $3 million in higher costs, while lobbyists for counties predict up to $20 million in additional costs.
He also points to a 2011 estimate by the state Management and Budget office that shows about $50 million in startup costs for state and local government.
"This is a huge amount of money at a time where every single budget except for a few special items are completely squeezed — I mean cut, cut, cut, cut, cut," Ritchie said. "So there's a higher level of scrutiny for unfunded mandates, for property tax increases, for spending money that's not now being spent."
Ritchie also is concerned that the requirement could pose problems for senior citizens, college students and other voters who don't have a photo ID, and for overseas military personnel who cannot easily show their ID. He said the reporting of election results might take longer while provisional ballots are processed. His list of criticisms is basically the same as when he testified against the Republican-backed amendment during the legislative session.
But Ritchie is adamant that he is not campaigning against the ballot question.
"It's not my job to tell people how to vote," he said. "But when the county board of supervisors asks me to come and talk about the cost implications and the impacts on their election administration and their voters, that's an area where I have expertise, and it's my responsibility to be responsive."
But amendment supporters say Ritchie is doing far more than sharing information. They argue that it's blatant campaigning.
Dan McGrath, executive director for the pro amendment group Minnesota Majority, accused Ritchie of spreading misinformation about costs and using the same talking points as the political organizations that oppose the amendment.
"Well, I think the Secretary of State is creating a very unfortunate, very public conflict of interest when speaking about the voter ID amendment," McGrath said. "His job is to impartially prepare and count the ballots. But instead, he's taking an active position against something that is going to be on the ballot. I find that very disturbing, especially in light of that fact that he appears to be using taxpayer dollars in his campaign against the voter ID amendment."
McGrath said he thinks Ritchie should be required to form a political committee, just like other opponents and advocates of the ballot question. He said his group may file a complaint against the secretary of state with the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board.
Ritchie tried to emphasize his neutrality on the issue in a recent letter to the Minnesota Supreme Court. He is named as a defendant in the lawsuit brought by photo ID opponents to try to prevent the amendment from getting on the statewide ballot. But he told Chief Justice Lorie Gildea that he will not take a side in the legal challenge.
"We're not here to tell voters, we're not here to tell the Supreme Court, we're not here to tell people how they should be thinking about this," Ritchie said. "We're here to print the ballot."
The court has set oral arguments in that case for July 17.