Ritchie Targets Voting Barriers

New Secretary of State Pledges to Continue his Work on Eliminating Election Day Obstacles for People with Disabilities

Ever since the November elections, Mark Ritchie, the newly elected Secretary of State of Minnesota, has been anxious for his term to start on January 2nd. “I can’t wait to begin working to further improve our state’s election system,” stated Ritchie.

Ritchie noted that although Minnesota has led the country in voter turnout for some time, there is still room for improvement. He pointed out that Minnesotans with disabilities are 20% less likely to vote than other eligible citizens. “The staff of the Secretary of State’s office will work closely with advocates within the disability community to change this,” pledged Ritchie.

Ritchie’s campaign focused on removing remaining barriers that keep people from voting, including obstacles created by a lack of information. In October, four weeks before he was even elected, Ritchie instructed his staff to contact over 1,500 residential facilities, including group homes, battered women’s shelters, homeless shelters and nursing homes, to inform them about new laws that affected their residents’ voting rights. “We realized that a deadline for taking action was approaching, and no one had told the residential facilities about the steps they needed to take,” Ritchie explained. “Even though it meant diverting resources away from winning the campaign, we did it because it was the right thing to do. Now that I’m the Secretary of State, I can make sure that my office educates residential facilities about their options, so this won’t be an issue again.”

Ritchie has spent the last 20 years working for charitable organizations and is known for his collaborative work style. “The key is getting input from all of the stakeholders when making changes. Just because I’ll be the chief elections official in the state, doesn’t mean that I’m the expert on the challenges facing special populations or the procedures used at the local level. I need to hear from these groups about what’s needed and what will work,” Ritchie stated. In addition to the Secretary of State’s office, county, city, school board, and township officials are all involved in running elections in Minnesota.

Ritchie plans to examine current election procedures to see what needs to be changed. One focus will be reviewing how the AutoMarks worked; these new, accessible ballot-marking machines were used for the first time in last fall’s elections. One study group found that there were issues with the reliability of the machines, the slow speed at which they operated, and the election judges’ lack of familiarity with the machines. “It seems clear that we will need to work with the manufacturer and programmers to see what can be done about how these machines work, and to bolster the training on how to use the machines for many election judges,” explained Ritchie.

“We also need to improve training for local elections officials and election judges about the voting rights of people under guardianship,” Ritchie stated. In recent years, Minnesota state law changed so that people under guardianship retain their right to vote, unless a court has specifically revoked it. Nevertheless, some election judges were not aware of the change and prevented people under guardianship from voting. Ritchie promised, “I will see to it that election judges and other poll workers understand this [new law] fully, so that people under guardianship will no longer have to worry about their right to vote needlessly being challenged.”

Ritchie has a lot that he wants to accomplish in the next four years, but instead of overwhelming him, he seems to be energized by it. “I’m excited. Ensuring that people have a say in how their government is run is critical to a well-functioning democracy. I’m looking forward to getting into office and digging in.”