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GOP senators file complaint over Mark Ritchie’s voting amendment actions

Sens. Scott Newman and Mike Parry claim the secretary of state has acted improperly as an elected official and is attempting to mislead voters about the measure.

Sens. Mike Parry and Scott Newman, with GOP attorney Fritz Knaak ,center, outline a complaint Parry and Newman filed with the Office of Administrative Hearings on Thursday against Secretary of State Mark Ritchie.
MinnPost photo by James Nord

Adding to the controversy surrounding Minnesota’s voting amendment, two GOP senators on Thursday filed an administrative complaint against Secretary of State Mark Ritchie that alleges he has acted improperly as an elected official and is attempting to mislead voters.

Sens. Scott Newman and Mike Parry filed the complaint with the Office of Administrative Hearings, which handles such matters. They allege that:

• Ritchie is providing inaccurate and biased information to voters about the potential costs and effects of the amendment.

• He has acted in his official capacity as secretary of state to oppose the amendment.

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• He and his staff are using public funds to campaign against the amendment.

“It is my position that Secretary of State Ritchie has used his office … to try to influence the outcome of this ballot initiative,” said Newman, who was the amendment’s chief Senate author. “It is our position that he has violated [campaign] laws.”

Ritchie’s office issued a brief statement Thursday afternoon: “Secretary of State Mark Ritchie does not comment on litigation. ‘I continue to work closely with local elections officials to ensure that the 2012 General Election is efficient and accurate.’ “

Fritz Knaak, a former legislator and GOP attorney representing the two senators, said he expects the hearings office to convene an expedited probable-cause hearing soon. Depending on the outcome of the process, Ritchie could face fines or criminal charges.

Neither the Senate Republican Caucus nor state tax dollars are paying for Knaak’s services, Newman said, but he wouldn’t elaborate on whether the two senators were paying for the attorney’s fees.

Parry and Newman argue in the 50-page complaint [PDF] that documents on the secretary of state’s website ostensibly meant to educate voters about the amendment’s potential effects on voting procedures are actually a veiled attempt to drum up opposition to the ballot question.

Ritchie has repeatedly expressed concerns that Election Day registration as Minnesotans know it could end, and that certain language in the amendment could significantly inhibit absentee voting. He also has raised concerns about the potential costs to implement the amendment.

Amendment advocates, including Newman, repeatedly have assured voters and other lawmakers that the legislative intent is not to end same-day registration or disenfranchise voters. He also disputed Ritchie’s cost estimates.

Answers to many of the questions about specific provisions and costs of the constitutional amendment would have to be provided by the next Legislature, if the measure passes.

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Newman said he expects the hearing’s office to “do a very, very thorough job.”

The two senators also allege that Ritchie — while on at least six trips across Minnesota on official state business — met with newspaper editors “to campaign against passage of the amendment.”

The specific amount of public resources Ritchie used — such as state vehicles, hotel reimbursements and compensation — is currently unknown because Ritchie “refuses to adhere to Minnesota’s Data Practices Act,” according to a press release that accompanied Thursday’s announcement. 

If Ritchie were acting personally — and not as a public official — he would have to register a Ballot Question Committee with the state Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board, they said.

The complaint also includes a letter Ritchie sent to a veterans-related group on his letterhead as evidence that he used his official capacity as secretary of state to campaign against the amendment.

The letter, which invites the group to learn more about the amendment, came with several attachments, including a document titled “Impact on Overseas and Military Voters of the Proposed Constitutional Amendment to Restrict Voting Rights.”

The last line of that letter reads: “Minnesota voters can veto this bill and send it back to the legislature by voting ‘no’ on November 6.”

Parry was unwilling to say if the senators would attempt to recall Ritchie as the hearing process plays out, but said, “No, we’re not” ready to take it off the table. Parry has made similar comments in the past. Ritchie isn’t up for re-election until 2014.

Parry is leaving the Legislature after a failed congressional bid in the 1st District. In summer, he convened a hearing of the Senate Government Innovation and Veterans Committee, which he chairs, to raise concerns about Ritchie’s attempts to rename the two constitutional amendments set to appear on the November ballot.

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Neither Ritchie nor Attorney General Lori Swanson showed up to the July meeting.

“To me, that was arrogant on his part,” Parry said on Thursday, “not showing up.”

It’s unclear why the senators waited until a month before the elections to file their complaint, although Parry said he was busy campaigning up until the Minnesota’s Aug. 15 primary elections.