The highly publicized vote recount in the Minnesota Senate race between Democrat Al Franken and Republican Norm Coleman is shining a light on Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, the state’s chief election officer.
Ritchie is chairman of the Minnesota Canvassing Board, which on Monday certified that Franken received 225 more votes than Coleman did.
Ritchie gave partial credit for his 2006 election to a liberal 527 group, the Secretary of State Project, which says its goal is to “ensure fair, clean elections” by replacing conservative secretaries of state with liberal Democrats.
“I want to thank the Secretary of State Project and its thousands of grassroots donors for helping to push my campaign over the top,” Ritchie said in a posting on the project’s Web site. “Your wonderful support--both directly to my campaign and through generous expenditures by the strategic fund--helped me get our election reform message to Minnesota voters.”
The SoS Project says it spent a total of $500,000 in seven swing states in 2006 trying to get Democrats elected as secretaries of state. They achieved victories in all but two of those states--Michigan and Colorado--but helped fund Democratic wins in Ohio, Nevada, Minnesota, Iowa and New Mexico.
In 2008, the group had a clean sweep in its targeted states, spending $280,000 to help elect Democrats in Montana, West Virginia, Oregon and Missouri, according to the watchdog group Center for Public Integrity,.
“The Secretary of State Project was created by concerned citizens to provide an easy-to-use, low-cost vehicle for online donations to key Secretary of State races,” the group’s Web site says. Elsewhere, the site states: “A modest political investment in electing clean candidates to critical Secretary of State offices is an efficient way to protect the election. SoS Project donors helped elect reform candidates to the chief elections officer position in 5 key presidential battleground states.”
The group’s Web site holds up former Republican secretaries of state Katherine Harris of Florida and Ken Blackwell of Ohio as the type of people they want to keep out of office. Harris was secretary of state in Florida in 2000, when George W. Bush won the state after a recount, and Blackwell was secretary of state in Ohio in 2004, when Bush won that state narrowly.
Becky Bond and Michael Kieschnick, co-founders of the group, could not be reached for comment Monday after numerous attempts via phone and e-mail.
In addition to backing the election of Secretary of State Ritchie in Minnesota, the Secretary of State Project also backed Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner. The SoS Project says it spent more than $200,000 ($167,000 directly to the campaign and $30,000 on independent expenditures) to get Brunner elected in 2006.
Brunner made news in October 2008 when she declined to hand over to county election boards 200,000 names on voter registration forms where the drivers license or Social Security number on the forms did not match the name. The SoS project praised her actions.
“What a difference it makes to have a Secretary of State committed to fair and ethical elections,” the Web site said of Brunner. “That’s why our 2008 slate targets clean elections candidates in Montana, Oregon, Missouri and West Virginia. Your contributions help us stand up for candidates who will stand up for fairness.”
SoS isn’t just focusing on the state level. It says in 2008 it also concentrated on electing “reform-minded Democrats to key county-level posts in battleground states,” given the “tremendous amount of influence” that “manipulative county-level elections officials can exert” over election results.
According to the Center for Public Integrity, the SoS Project received a total of $102,000 in funding from four members of the Democracy Alliance. This alliance, which supports liberal causes, describes itself as “an investment partnership of business and philanthropic leaders.”
The flow of 527 money into these races highlights the need to depoliticize the office of chief election officials, said Robert Richie, executive director of Fair Vote, which advocates for election reform.
“As long as there are elections for this office, there will be groups that will use every expense to try to elect the person who will do a better job--from their point of view,” Richie told CNSNews.com. “Voters have already made the decision that it should be political in most states. There is a tradition in other countries to establish election officials as civil servants beyond reproach.”
He said Maryland and North Carolina have non-elected officials supervising elections.
Richie said that, overall, he thinks the Minnesota secretary of state conducted a respectable recount.
“A secretary of state can’t just run wild if people believe there is full-fledged cheating going on,” Richie said. “I would hope that when candidates have to face voters again, they would be on shaky ground if they tried to cheat.”
“After the 2000 election, it didn’t take too much observation to see that what a secretary of state does matters,” Richie said. “The office is important and more reporters should be cognizant of that.”