11/17/08

ACORN's Minnesota elections official exposed

Related: "ACORN - Al Franken's savior?"
More ACORN stories: hereVoter-fraud stories: here

Union-backed voter-fraud group keeps on giving

Until a few years ago, Mark Ritchie paid more attention to the fine print of global trade pacts than to the ovals on ballots.

Then Ritchie, a farm policy analyst, had problems changing his absentee vote for Sen. Paul Wellstone, a Democrat who died in a plane crash shortly before the 2002 election. The hassle prompted a career change that resulted in Ritchie becoming Minnesota's top election official.

Now the 56-year-old Democratic secretary of state is at the center of a recount that will determine whether Republican Sen. Norm Coleman or Democrat Al Franken won a U.S. Senate seat.

Though Ritchie said he leaves his politics at the door when he comes to work, Republicans are suspicious. Conservatives have pointed out Ritchie's ties to the community activist group ACORN, which has been linked to dubious voter registrations in several states. Another group, Minnesota Majority, has criticized Ritchie for not jumping on questions it has raised about the soundness of the state's voter rolls.

"This is a test," said Republican Mary Kiffmeyer, whom Ritchie unseated two years ago. "You don't know the answer to the test before you take it."

Ritchie addressed the partisan question head-on in an interview with Minnesota Public Radio on Friday: "Yes, I'm a Democrat and proud of it," he said.

Then Ritchie went on to defend himself and two Republican-appointed state Supreme Court justices who will serve on the state canvassing board that has the final word on disputed ballots. Two Ramsey County judges - one appointed by an Independence Party governor, the other elected in a nonpartisan race - are on the board.

In an earlier interview, Ritchie said the recount "is an opportunity to reverse what Florida did in 2000 if we get this right, the way we want to do it."

His key role has already brought the glare of national attention.

"And of course they know they are going to be the subject of not just scrutiny on the part of our campaign and the Franken campaign, but really officials all over the state and the United States," said Fritz Knaak, Coleman's lead lawyer on the recount.

Ritchie, who lives in Minneapolis, said he became active in DFL politics just a few years ago. He took a leave from his job as head of a think tank, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, to run a national voter turnout campaign in the 2004 election cycle.

His brother said the experience alarmed Ritchie - enough to prompt a career shift.

"It was really about being freaked out about what he saw happening to the democracy and to the system - people's loss of confidence," said Niel Ritchie, who runs the League of Rural Voters. "He decided to give it a shot."

By 2006, Mark Ritchie was running for office. ACORN's political arm was among an array of liberal groups that endorsed him, as did the Secretary of State Project, a group pushing to elect Democrats. He beat Kiffmeyer, a two-term incumbent, by 4.4 percentage points, putting him in charge of state elections, official documents and business services in an office with about 70 employees. Ritchie makes $90,227 a year.

"He's busier now than he was before he was elected, and I didn't actually think that was possible," Niel Ritchie said.

Mark Ritchie ran into trouble during his first year in office when he furnished about 600 names on a state mailing list to his campaign, prompting complaints and an investigation by the legislative auditor. The auditor found no broken laws but said Ritchie could have cooperated more fully. Ritchie said he did cooperate and the complaints were partisan.

Ritchie's campaign Web site includes a graduation photo of his only child, Rachel Gaschott Ritchie, who was killed by a drunken driver in 2000, shortly before her 21st birthday. An organ donor, her body parts helped many people - including a young girl who got Rachel's heart.

Years later, she sent the Ritchies her own graduation photo.

"It made me stop wanting to kill the kid who killed my daughter," Ritchie said.

Ritchie said getting through two speeches on his daughter to an organ donor group the weekend after the election - commitments made long before anyone knew there would be a recount - was tougher for him than starting up the recount, despite all the drama surrounding the close Senate election.

"Saturday was a lot more complicated and difficult day than even that crazy week we just had," he said.

(in-forum.com)

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