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Republicans question Ritchie's dealing with amendment

ST. PAUL -- Republicans say Democratic Secretary of State Mark Ritchie may be breaking state campaign laws by speaking out against a proposed constitutional amendment to be on Minnesotans' ballots Nov. 6.

Sen. Mike Parry said he is considering taking Ritchie to court or issuing a legislative subpoena requiring the secretary to testify. The senator even said Ritchie could be recalled.

Parry, a Waseca Republican and candidate for U.S. House in southern Minnesota, called a Friday meeting of his Senate state government committee on the issue, but Ritchie and Attorney General Lori Swanson rejected his invitation to testify.

The senator and other Republicans said Ritchie is telling Minnesotans things about a proposed amendment to require voters to produce photo identification that are not true. Parry also said he thinks Ritchie's actions amount to campaigning on state time.

Ritchie has refused to comment on the issue since three constitutional amendment questions landed in front of the Minnesota Supreme Court.

Parry said he will decide "within days" his next steps against Ritchie.

Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, said he was disappointed Ritchie did not appear at Friday's committing meeting because he wants to know more about what Ritchie and his staff are saying about the photo ID amendment.

In speaking out against the amendment, Newman wondered, "is it a violation of his oath of office?" He also wants answers to find out if the state should fund Ritchie's travel when he is discussing the legislative-approve amendment proposal.

Ritchie is trying to influence voters, said Newman, Senate sponsor of the photo ID proposal. "That is not his job."

The secretary is the state's top elections officer.

Democrats on Parry's committee said Ritchie is just telling voters what to expect if the photo ID amendment passes. They said he is doing nothing wrong.

"It is his duty to tell the people of Minnesota what he thinks this will do," Sen. Barb Goodwin, DFL-Columbia Heights, said. "I think this is kind of a false accusation."

If Republicans opt to sue Ritchie, the action would be added to three related cases pending in the Minnesota Supreme Court:

-- Whether Ritchie's rewrite of the legislatively passed title to the photo ID amendment is legal.

-- Whether Ritchie's new title for a proposed amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman is legal.

-- Whether the wording of the photo ID question to appear on the Nov. 6 ballot accurately reflects the actual proposed amendment.

A hearing on the ballot wording was held Tuesday and the court plans to hear arguments about Ritchie's authority to write amendment titles on July 31.

Parry said he will "reach out" to Ritchie and Attorney General Lori Swanson, both no-shows in his committee meeting. The senator called the meeting to discuss Ritchie rewriting the titles to two Republican-sponsored amendment proposals that voters will decide in the fall election, but nearly all of the discussion was about the photo ID issue.

Swanson's office approved both titles as Ritchie wrote them.

One complaint Republicans on Parry's committee discusses was Ritchie is telling Minnesotans that requiring a photo ID to vote would end the state's traditional election day registration practice. But, GOP senators said, nothing in the amendment proposal would change registration.

Parry said Ritchie crossed the line from educating Minnesotans about the amendment to campaigning against it.

"To insert speculation without knowledge and backing" appears to show Ritchie is campaigning against the amendment, Parry said. And besides violating campaign laws requiring statements to be true, the senator said that Ritchie also could be breaking campaign finance laws by doing what the Republican considered campaigning with state funds.

Executive Director Gary Goldsmith of the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board could not tell Parry's committee if Ritchie broke the law, but suggested that some of the questions could best be answered in court.

Ritchie attorney Bert Black told the committee that state law requires the secretary of state to write a title on amendment proposals. Republicans, however, countered that the state Constitution gives such authority to legislators, bypassing the executive branch.

Ritchie decided that ballots would list "Changes to in-person and absentee voting and voter registration; provisional ballots" as the title. The Republican-controlled Legislature wrote the title as: "Photo identification required for voting."

The two letters in which Ritchie wrote about changing the titles contained far different signatures, Sen. John Carlson said, asking Black why.

Black told the Bemidji Republican that one was Ritchie's real signature, but the other was produced electronically. Black said state law allows electronic signatures and Ritchie uses it when he is out of the office.

Carlson said it was "just a bit curious" that Ritchie would use an electronic signature for such a serious issue.

Sen. Ted Lillie, R-Woodbury, said that "it feels to me" that Ritchie rewrote the amendment titles to confuse voters into rejecting the measures.

Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, was especially upset over Ritchie's title rewrites.

"Our secretary of state has crossed the line in this particular situation, it is partisan," Thompson said.

Thompson said that his goal is to protect the legislative process and constitutional separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches of government.