Friday, October 05, 2012

Secretary Ritchie called on the carpet

I opined the other day that the legislature would look the other way on Secretary of State Ritchie's questionable (at best) activities regarding the Voter ID amendment.  I am happy to have been proved wrong.

State Senators Mike Parry and Scott Newman have filed a complaint with the Office of Administrative Hearings, which has jurisdiction over violations of state election law.  Unlike the usual complaint filed with OHS, the senator's prima facie evidence submissions include over 40 pages of evidence.  The complaint can be broken down into two distinct areas; 1) that Sec Ritchie made false claims about the proposed ballot amendment, both verbally and in writing, including adding the false information to the Secretary of State's official website, and 2) that Sec Ritchie has violated state election laws by actively campaigning against the Voter ID amendment, to include use of state resources and reimbursement for travel costs.

Of the two areas, the first is the more damning and disappointing.  We don't generally expect a lot of our elected officials these days, but Secretary Ritchie's claims have managed to exceed our low expectations.  The Secretary has a legal and ethical responsibility to provide accurate information on our voting process, a responsibility he has consistently abdicated.  But according to the standards of the ethics complaint process, it will be fairly difficult to prove in a court room setting that Secretary Ritchie has made false claims.  The court panel will have to be shown not only that the Secretary's claims are factually false, but that he knew they were false when he made them.  That is a tough standard for anyone to prove.

But the second area, use of state resources while campaigning against the ballot question, is much easier to prove to the court panel.  The letter sent to the Gold Star Moms (a copy of which was presented as evidence and is available on the Strib page linked above) shows very clear intent.  Sec Ritchie's letter does not provide the pros and cons of the amendment; it provides a single side of negative statements about the effects of the amendment.  That in itself crosses the line from voter education to voter persuasion.  Even had he simply made one statement about the positive effect of the Voter ID amendment, he could have claimed to be giving both sides. 

But Sec Ritchie hasn't just been sending letters supplied by the taxpayer and mailed at our expense-he and his staff have been traveling around the state to speak out against the amendment in person.  According to the complaint, Sec Ritchie has traveled to Mankato, Marshall, Northfield, New Ulm, Red Wing, and Waite Park to provide 'informational' forums about the amendment.  That means we the taxpayer have been paying for meals, mileage, and in some cases hotel rooms so that the secretary and his staff can campaign against a proposed amendment.  The irony here is rich of course, in that when Sen Parry requested the secretary to attend a hearing on the amendment, the secretary pointedly declined.  Sec Ritchie had a chance to speak in front of cameras and reporters and offer his official and even personal opinion of the amendment, yet he refused.  Now he is accused of charging the taxpayer to travel across the state  to offer that same opinion.

I'm sure many liberals and Voter ID opponents will be dismissive of Sec Ritchie's actions because they believe he is 'doing the right thing', or 'standing up against the man'.  I'm sure some older progressives will laud him for 'speaking truth to power'.  But we are a society that lives by the rule of law.  You can't simply ignore the law because you don't like it or it is inconvenient.  You can change the law or you can live by the law, but you can't disregard it.  Secretary Ritchie has already overstepped his legal authority in the matter of the proposed amendment by trying to change the language that appears on the ballot, and had his hand smacked by the courts for doing so.  Now, Secretary Ritchie is likely to wind up on the wrong side of another court ruling, which will give momentum to the Voter ID amendment.

Unfortunately, no one really wins if the court rules against Sec Ritchie.  The Voter ID amendment has always been a popular idea in Minnesota, and has never polled under 52% (then only with a ridiculous weighted sample).  The amendment is likely to pass by a healthy margin, meaning the secretary's actions will have all been for naught.  The size of the win means nothing on a constitutional amendment.  So the amendment will pass anyway, but Minnesota voters will have a little less confidence in their elected officials, a little less certainty that we can trust what they tell us.

Lastly, I should mention that I thought no one would challenge the Secretary because of the political risks in doing so.  Those on the other side of this issue will no doubt remark that Sen Parry isn't facing a political risk, in that he is not running for re-election to the Senate after failing to get the CD1 endorsement to run for Congress.  But while Sen Parry may be down, he's certainly not out, and I expect he will not disappear from public life.  So there is a risk to him by pursuing this, and applaud him for doing so.

No comments: