Ritchie visits Austin

Published 10:00 am Thursday, August 5, 2010

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie talks with local election officials Thursday during a stop in Austin to talk about the earlier-than-usual primaries coming up Tuesday. --Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

With Minnesota’s primary election day fast approaching — it’s on Tuesday — Secretary of State Mark Ritchie stopped in Austin Thursday to meet with local election officials before the earlier-than-usual primary.

Traditionally, the state has had its primaries in September, but the Legislature voted in February to move the date up, largely to give Minnesotans living overseas — like those in the military — more time to get ballots in before the general election in November.

Ritchie’s job in the last six months has been to make sure the switch goes off without a hitch. So far, he said, so good.

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“So far, it’s been amazingly smooth,” Ritchie said.

The secretary of state said the transition has been good because officials have had almost a year to prepare since the legislation to move up the primary got rolling. Other than a few problems re-programming various computer systems, Ritchie said he’s heard few complaints.

And Ritchie said that’s good, because he personally favors the earlier primary because of the opportunity it affords to those serving this country who may have otherwise had little time to vote.

“It feels like real progress to me,” he said.

Other than being in August and not September, Ritchie said voters can expect the 2010 primary to be no different than in years past.

When it comes to turnout, that should mean between 10 and 20 percent of eligible voters in the county showing up at the polls. Ritchie said he expects the actual turnout to be closer to the low end, simply because there’s only really one major statewide race being contested — the DFL gubernatorial battle — and no presidential election.

However, there are still several key races at the local level, as primaries are being held for mayor, City Council Ward 3 and county board District 3. Ritchie said “hot” local races are typically what drives turnout, not the date of the election, though some have countered that a mid-summer primary will be poorly attended because so many people are on vacation.

“We believe the main driver in a primary is not the day, but the race,” Ritchie said. “Competition matters.”

To some extent, that theory will be tested in Mower County next week. That’s because the primary falls on the opening day of the 2010 Mower County Fair, which should make for a busy day for those looking to set up exhibits and to exercise their democratic rights.

During Ritchie’s Thursday visit, a few county election officials jokingly said that polling places should be set up at the fairgrounds.

While that may not happen this year, the secretary of state’s office is constantly looking at ways to make voting easier and more efficient. This has included an initiative to e-mail absentee ballots to soldiers overseas.

However, Ritchie said he doesn’t think voting online will — or should — necessarily follow. Though Web voting may be a more convenient option, Ritchie said having physical, paper ballots as records is essential, a point that was proven during the recount of the 2008 Senate race between Norm Coleman and Al Franken.

Additionally, the secretary of state said technology would need to continue to improve before he and others would feel secure with an online voting system.

“Until government is smarter than hackers, (online voting) is not a safe or affordable task,” Ritchie said.

That means that for now, Mower County residents and others across the state will have to get used to going to the polls in August.

Election help online

For information on where and how to vote, visit the secretary of state’s Web site at www.sos.state.mn.us. Also, the Daily Herald will be running a complete listing of primary polling places in Monday’s paper.