You may have seen him in Duluth. Or maybe you happened upon him in Mankato, or maybe noticed him in Bemidji.
Or maybe you haven’t seen him at all, but he’s out there, as Mark Ritchie’s travel itinerary the last few days can attest. In the final weeks leading up to Election Day, Minnesota’s secretary of state has become a man with one simple mission: Registering Minnesotans to vote and getting them to turn out.
“Our goal is 80 percent in ’08,” Ritchie says on a cell phone, driving from one Minnesota town or another, referring to eligible voter turnout. “We want to keep Minnesota number one.”
He’s alluding to Minnesota’s history of having one of the highest voter turnout rates in the country. Given that, you’d think the secretary of state would be content to rest on his laurels rather than racking up miles. But to Ritchie, voter registration and turnout can be even better.
“We have three big strategies,” he says. “The first is eliminating barriers, for our soldiers overseas to folks with disabilities or transportation issues.” As for soldiers, the SOS Web site offers a “military and overseas voter service.” “Soldiers didn’t pick the date of the Minnesota primary,” Ritchie notes.
Second, according to Ritchie, is that his office has to “address reluctance or reticence” among potential voters, reaching those who are “cynical about politics.” To that end, Ritchie’s office is offering a “vote in honor of a vet initiative,” where voters can share a story about a veteran they know, and then get a button that has the name of the honored veteran on it.
“After some campaign ads, some people want to take a shower, they’re so toxic,” Ritchie notes. This, presumably, restores some sense of honor to the act of voting.
The final strategy, Ritchie says, is “getting out and inviting people into the process.” Though Minnesota notably has same-day registration on Election Day, Ritchie says registering earlier will increase turnout.
Voters by the numbers
Is it working? Numbers from the secretary’s office say yes, at least for the short term. The office had 4,000 more registered voters listed Thursday than it did the day before. But turnout and registered voter numbers are fairly consistent with the last two election cycles.
In 2004, there were 2.977 million registered voters at 7 a.m. on Election Day out of 3.682 million eligible potential voters. In 2006, 3.118 million out of 3.620 million eligible were registered. So far this year, there are 3.172 million registered out of an estimated 3.7 million eligible. There’s an uptick, and Ritchie promises to add more.
“We will get 150,000 more between now and Election Day,” Ritchie says. “We could get to 90 percent by then, and then the focus is on turnout.”
(As for who’s paying for all of this, Ritchie couldn’t ballpark a dollar figure, but notes that this is a main mission of his office; he also added that some federal money comes from the Help American Vote Act.)
All seems well and good, but some people believe registering more people could favor, say, a younger candidate like Barack Obama, or a newcomer against an incumbent, like Al Franken against Norm Coleman. Does Ritchie worry about calls that his efforts are partisan? In a word, no.
“That would be a person who would assume soldiers would vote for Obama, or that some people should vote and some people shouldn’t,” Ritchie says. “If people think soldiers shouldn’t vote, something’s wrong. If people think old people shouldn’t vote, something’s wrong. If people think college students, the future of our country, shouldn’t vote, then something’s wrong.”