GOP senators file complaint against secretary of state

Parry, Newman
Sen. Mike Parry, R-Waseca, (right) and Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, filed a formal complaint against DFL Secretary of State Mark Ritchie on Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

Two Republican lawmakers say they think DFL Secretary of State Mark Ritchie has gone too far in his criticism of the proposed voter ID constitutional amendment, which is on the November ballot.

Sens. Mike Parry of Waseca and Scott Newman of Hutchinson filed a formal complaint Thursday accusing Ritchie of using public money to campaign against voter ID and of spreading inaccurate information.

The complaint, filed with the Office of Administrative Hearings, accuses Ritchie of multiple violations of state campaign law. Parry and Newman, who have hired attorney Fritz Knaak to represent them, claim that Ritchie traveled throughout the state in his official capacity and at taxpayer expense, to promote what they view as his personal anti-voter ID agenda.

They also claim he used those travels, as well as his office's website, to mislead voters about the potential impact of a new photo identification requirement.

During a state Capitol news conference, Newman said it's the secretary of state's job to implement election laws without bias.

"I don't view Mark Ritchie as being some type of an election cop, whose responsibility it is to protect the people of the state of Minnesota from the Legislature's bill on this constitutional amendment," Newman said. "Neither do I believe that he, using his position as secretary of state, has a job to try to influence the outcome of this ballot initiative."

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Newman said he believes Ritchie misused public money and illegally engaged in political activity as a state employees. He also contends the secretary of state has repeatedly made false and misleading statements about voter ID, including that it will cost $50 million to implement and will end same-day voter registration. Newman also took issue with Ritchie's claim that the amendment could disenfranchise military voters.

"Throughout all of the Senate hearings, the committee hearings and on the floor of the Senate, we continued to deny that that was true," he said. "That has never been our intention. That is not going to happen."

Despite that intention, there is no mention of military voters in the amendment, and Republicans defeated several DFL attempts to amend the bill with such an exemption. The outcome about many voter ID details would not be known unless voters pass the amendment; next year's Legislature would then decide how to implement it.

Still, Knaak said the Office of Administrative Hearings will soon try to determine the truth.

"Some of this is a first impression," Knaak said. "They're going to look at this, I'm sure, and try to make some determination as to how much of this is allowed speech and how much of this factually inaccurate."

Similar accusations against Ritchie were first raised back in July, when Parry called a rare summer hearing of the State Government Innovation and Veterans Committee, which he chairs. Ritchie did not show up, and Parry has not forgotten the snub.

"It was arrogant on his part, not showing up, both him and the attorney general," Parry said. "I mean, we could have solved this. I just kept getting e-mails from the public. 'What are you going to do? Can you do something? You're the chairman. He falls under your authority. What can you do?'"

Parry, whose Senate term ends in three months, said he also wants the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board and the Office of the Legislative Auditor to look into Ritchie. He said those complaints could come later. Parry abruptly ended the news conference and left the room, even though reporters were still asking questions.

Democrats say the GOP complaint is off base. DFL Sen. Chuck Wiger of Maplewood said he thinks Ritchie has a right and a duty to talk about voter ID.

"To suggest that he has to just be mute on the issue and that there's some kind of First Amendment gag order on his ability, I think, is incorrect," Wiger said. "Moreover, I would say he has a responsibility to do that."

Ritchie issued a statement saying that he does not comment on litigation and that he will "continue to work closely with local elections officials to ensure that the 2012 general election is efficient and accurate."

Ritchie has previously said that he is not telling people how to vote on the constitutional amendment.