GOP dogs Minn. Secretary of State on online voter registration even though he's a lame duck

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Democratic Secretary of State Mark Ritchie won't be seeking re-election next year, but that hasn't slowed the Republican criticism that has dogged him through two terms.

Republican lawmakers have been pounding Ritchie for developing an online voter registration system, without first obtaining legislative approval.

Among them is state Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, who is considering another run for the secretary of state job she once held. Kiffmeyer lost her bid for a third term as secretary of state to Ritchie in 2006.

"Doing anything online has a risk with it, and especially something like this, and I just want to be sure," Kiffmeyer said. "My concerns are it hasn't gone through the legislative process. It has not been vetted by our state IT department, nor the expertise that we have. It's been done on a unilateral basis."

She and other Republicans want the Senate Subcommittee on Elections to hold a hearing to address their concerns.

The panel's chair, state Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Newport, said she will hold a hearing, but not until the 2014 session begins in February.

Sieben said passing enabling legislation would help preserve the new online system. But she made it clear that she doesn't share the GOP concerns about Ritchie.

"I think Secretary Ritchie is an ethical, consistently thoughtful secretary of state who's looking to protect the integrity of Minnesota elections, and I don't have any concerns about his role as secretary of state," Sieben said. "I think he's doing a great job."

Republicans have complained about Ritchie before, including his handling of two statewide recounts that their candidates lost. Ritchie presided over the 2008 U.S. Senate race recount that gave a narrow win to Democrat Al Franken over incumbent Republican Norm Coleman. He also oversaw the recount in the 2010 governor's race between Democrat Mark Dayton and Republican Tom Emmer.

In 2007, the fight was over Ritchie's use of a state government mailing list for political purposes. GOP legislators took Ritchie to court in 2012 after he reworded their original ballot titles for two proposed constitutional amendments. They also accused him of wrongly campaigning against the voter ID amendment.

Senate Minority Leader David Hann said there's been a clear pattern of behavior.

"It seems that the Democrats have this idea that they should do things that they think are good, regardless of whether they have authority under law to do it, and see if anyone pushes back," said Hann, R-Eden Prairie. "Well, that's just not how we should govern this state. We should look to the law that the Legislature has passed and try to be faithful to that."

Ritchie was not available for comment. But during an interview earlier this year, he downplayed his run-ins with Republicans as a part of the job.

"Any elected job comes with a lot of public scrutiny, and there are partisan activities that go on as part of our whole Democratic process," Ritchie said then.

Minnesota DFL Party Chair Ken Martin also offered a vigorous defense of Ritchie. Martin thinks the recent complaining shows a pattern of behavior by Republicans, not the secretary of state.

"Once again, the Republicans proved that the only thing they're interested in is standing in the way of anything that would allow more people in this state the opportunity to vote and to be registered to vote," he said.

Martin said he's confident his party will hold onto the office next November. There are currently two Democratic candidates in the race, state Reps. Steve Simon, of Hopkins and Deborah Hilstrom of Brooklyn Center.

Meanwhile, Republicans have yet to field any secretary of state candidates for 2014, despite regular partisan feuding over election issues. Kiffmeyer said it's still too early for candidates to enter the race, and her decision won't come until the end of the year.

Rep. Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, who was thought to be potential candidate for the job, said this week that she will instead seek re-election to her House.

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