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Ritchie pushes youth to vote

Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie spoke with a small group about voting issues at the University of Minnesota, Morris Monday evening. Later, Ritchie attended the monthly Community Meal at the Morris Senior Center.

By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

The State of Minnesota has witnessed a trend of more youth voting since 2004. In addition to making some election-year appearances, Secretary of State Mark Ritchie is making the rounds of the state's universities and colleges in an effort to beef up those numbers.

And if he can convince a few to help lower the average age of election judges, all the better.

Ritchie, who is up for reelection in November, stopped in Morris on Monday as part of his tour of campuses. He spoke to students, staff and others at the University of Minnesota, Morris, and later attended the monthly Community Meal at the Morris Senior Center.

Ritchie explained the implications of legislative changes made in the state's election system, and made a plea to youth to vote themselves and persuade their peers to do the same.

It's especially important this year, Ritchie said, because there is no presidential election and no national debates that involve a vast majority of candidates. The governor's race will likely be followed closely, but local races might be most anticipated.

"This election is about Minnesota," Ritchie said. "(This election) has the special feature of being focused on Minnesota."

If motivated, Minnesota youth could exert their influence in shaping the campaigns and election-day results, Ritchie said.

Since 2004, the percentage of youth voters has been increasing. By the 2008 election, the percentage of eligible youth voting was almost on par with the state's overall percentage, Ritchie said.

At times, the percentage of youth voters was 10 to 15 points behind that of the entire state. Candidates knew that and designed their campaigns to dwell on issues important to older voters. But as youth voting increases, so, too, does the interest in candidates to address issues important to younger voters, Ritchie said.

"You can influence voting and you can influence what candidates are hearing," Ritchie said, noting that conventional wisdom for many years was that young people and students don't vote but that that belief is changing.

"I think the candidates and politicians are watching," he said. "There could be a change in perception if (the number of youth voters) keeps growing. If it falls off, it will reinforce an old idea and an old image."

Ritchie reviewed legislative changes - some sparked by last year's Senate race recount - such as revamping the state's procedures and extending the timeframes and relaxing requirements for absentee voting, especially as it applies to voters serving in the military. In the 2008 presidential election, Minnesota led the nation with a 78 percent voter turnout, but only 2 percent to 5 percent of those overseas or in the military voted. In that election, 508 absentee ballots came in too late.

Absentee balloting also is an important issue for students, many of whom might not be living where they would need to vote when election day arrives. The state is examining more ways to improve the absentee system, such as permanent absentee balloting.

"It's really important to have students in that debate," Ritchie said.

The state also adopted an Aug. 10 primary election date. Moving the primary ahead about a month will give voters more time to learn about candidates and issues before the election.

Ritchie also answered questions about judicial elections and proposed law changes that would "take the lid off" spending in judicial races and create potentially costly and "dishonest" campaigns among judges, such as has occurred in states such as Texas and Alabama, he said.