Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie was the guest speaker at the Houston County Township Officers Association’s annual banquet.
Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie was the guest speaker at the Houston County Township Officers Association’s annual banquet.

The Houston County Township Officers Association (HCTOA) welcomed one of the prime movers of Minnesota's state government as their featured speaker on Sept. 19, when they met for their annual banquet in Caledonia.

Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie appeared at the request of association President Richard Markos.

Ritchie spoke for nearly an hour, regaling a crowd that included many of Houston County's 87 township officers, as well as a good number of county officials.

He spoke of the effects of state policies on farming communities, even as rural populations are being marginalized politically due to urbanization and suburbanization.

From adoptions to business registrations to elections and more, Ritchie outlined the duties of his office. When the 2011 state shutdown threatened to close the office, the loss of the central notification system would have hampered the purchase or sale of livestock, corn and soybeans, he noted. The recording of official acts goes back thousands of years, Ritchie added.

"Protecting our democracy requires protecting our elections," the secretary stated.

"You (townships) are running the elections in more than half the precincts in the state," he reminded the group.

"We need 30,000 election judges in a big election year like this one. In some places there are lots of folks, and it's not a problem. But in some places it's a lot of work, and we do quite a bit to help jurisdictions to make sure they have enough election judges, and that there's a new generation of election judges.

"Minnesota is number one in voter turnout and election administration," Ritchie said. "How do we stay number one?

"There are things that we need to do to make sure that everybody feels welcome and able to vote. As we age, there are things that can be done that make it harder, and we need to be thinking about that."

Ritchie recalled bitter battles involving townships that sought the right to vote by mail. In Kittson County, "their voting turnout had gone from near 100 percent to something much, much lower because it was just not possible, not safe, and would just not be the case that aging voters could continue to drive into town. They had to fight to make that (voting by mail) happen."

After the option was secured, Kittson County's turnout went back up, Ritchie said,

At Red Lake, another area with high voter turnout, Richie said he asked a resident at a town hall meeting why the local populace came to the polls in such extraordinary numbers.

He said, "A young woman stood up in the back and pointed at me. She said, 'When I drove into the town I drove by this very large VFW hall. Inside that hall is a huge wall with the name of every brave (person) that gave his life for this country.'

"She pointed to the ground and said, 'We love this place, we love this country, we are very patriotic, and we vote.'"

Traveling to the other end of the state, to a place not unlike Houston County where voter turnout is also high, a chamber of commerce president echoed the same words when faced with the question, Ritchie said.

This fall's constitutional amendment question on voter ID will not be quoted word for word, Ritchie said.

The vital ballot initiative will appear summarized. If passed, Minnesota's election system will become "much more like California," he said.

"Provisional voting is something we don't want in Minnesota," Ritchie noted.

Costs to townships, which will be forced to enact provisional balloting if the amendment passes, will be enormous (when measured on a per-capita basis) in some localities, Ritchie stated.

"You have a lot of people that have been calculating what the costs are at the county level, at the town level, at the township level. Dozens and dozens of counties have started to estimate the cost, and it's phenomenal, because you have to create a whole separate voting system."

Even the Pentagon has expressed dissatisfaction with the effect of provisional balloting on voting rights for active duty personnel, he added.

"It's not my job to tell people how they should vote on this. My main message is that it's important that citizens take the time and actually read what's being proposed to go into our constitution, because it will not be on your ballot.

"If folks don't know what's being proposed, it's hard to know if it's a good idea or not.

"It is my job as the Secretary of State and chief elections officer to answer people's questions when they ask, 'What is this going to cost? How will this affect my son or daughter who's based in Kuwait? How is this going to affect our township? How is this going to affect senior citizens?'

"It's been difficult, because there's been very little public conversation, but more and more, people are engaged.

"There was a proposal made to the Legislature that the Legislature would promise that the state would pay the local cost and the decision was 'no.'

"There was a proposal at the state Legislature to exempt absentee voters and military voters and Amish and other people with religious objections, and the answer was 'no.'

"Your senator, Jeremy Miller, took a very clear position that the constitution is not something that should be fooled with and putting policy-making into the constitution is not a good idea.

"He was a strong voice in saying the constitution is our highest document and that this is not the kind of thing that we should be doing.

"When something goes into the constitution it can't be changed, until there's another constitutional amendment."

Ritchie stressed the importance of not only protecting voting rights, but of investing in the future of the state by taking care of those treasures that earlier generations bequeathed to its citizens.

"We love this place, it's a beautiful place, but we don't just say that. We take care of it," he said.

"We have another chance in November to do that work of taking care of this place," he concluded, thanking township officers for the work they do.