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Minnesota SOS under spotlight as election approaches
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Mary Kiffmeyer, a Republican, ran for office in 1998 with the goal of strengthening a system she had seen up close as an elections worker in rural Minnesota. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)

St. Paul, Minn. — (AP) One of the most important people in this fall's general election isn't even on the ballot. Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer isn't up for reelection. But she's been putting in 16-hour days trying to make sure the election runs smoothly, a task getting far more attention than it would have in a pre-2000 recount, pre-9/11 world.

Her decisions will have an impact on how Minnesotans vote and even, perhaps, on the choices before them on the November ballot. Already, many of her moves have been criticized by some county election officials, the parties and voting-rights activists:

-Kiffmeyer installed a new voter registration system over the objection of some county auditors who said she was moving too quickly.

-Her enforcement of a little-known state law could keep 24 third-party candidates off the ballot.

-She warned local elections officials to watch out for terrorists - a message some people said was alarmist.

"To make everybody happy is an unattainable goal," Kiffmeyer said in an interview this week at her office here, a stone's throw from the Capitol. "You have to realize it is not possible."

Larry Jacobs, director of the 2004 Election Project at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, said Kiffmeyer is in good company; secretaries of state across the country are being watched more closely than ever because of the dual worries of voter fraud and terrorism.

Kiffmeyer, a Republican, ran for office in 1998 with the goal of strengthening a system she had seen up close as an elections worker in rural Minnesota. She has visited each of the state's 87 counties - whose elections apparatus she oversees - during each of the past six years and notes that Minnesota had the highest voter turnout in the country in 2000 at 69.4 percent.

Highly organized and formal - she was sharply dressed in her trademark red business suit and silk scarf - Kiffmeyer said she draws on four principles for running an election: access, accuracy, integrity and privacy.

But critics say her decisions favor security over access and may discourage voters from heading to the polls.

At the State Fair this summer, Kiffmeyer warned a Twin Cities alternative weekly, City Pages, that it might be operating an illegal voter registration effort. The paper was asking people to sign "I will vote" cards that were entered into a drawing for a free trip, which Kiffmeyer said might be construed as payment for voting or registering to vote.

"If we had taken her letter seriously, it would have resulted in shutting down a voter registration effort, however modest," said Steve Perry, the paper's editor.

The paper said nobody was given anything for registering to vote. Kiffmeyer said it was her duty to inform the paper that it might be breaking the law, and she said she issued a similar warning to the Taste of Minnesota festival, which was considering a similar promotion.

Last week, Kiffmeyer and Attorney General Mike Hatch, a Democrat, determined that Independence Party candidates should be disqualified from the general election ballot because none of them got enough votes during the primaries.

They based their decision on a little-known state law; both said they believed the law is unfair, but Kiffmeyer said she couldn't choose which laws to enforce. The Independence Party has asked the state Supreme Court to put the candidates' names back on the ballot.

Scott Simmons, the director of intergovernmental affairs for the Association of Minnesota Counties, worked under Kiffmeyer as the state elections director before she appointed someone in his place. Simmons would not discuss his departure but said his old boss has "a top-down style of management.

"The problem with that comes from the perception that the Secretary of State hasn't communicated with (county) elections officials," Simmons said. "Auditors need a good, solid relationship with the secretary. ... If the system isn't working, then they get anxiety and it's going to be a nightmare."

Auditors are monitoring the new system, which connects local voter rolls with state and federal databases. New voters and those with changed addresses will have to provide a drivers' license number or the last four digits of their Social Security number so officials can verify their identity. Some auditors said the system hasn't been adequately tested and that new voters will show up unprepared; most states got waivers giving them until 2006 to revamp registries.

Mary Pischke, the auditor in Pope County in western Minnesota, said she didn't notice any major problems with the system during the primary earlier this month. Asked whether the Secretary of State's office has offered adequate guidance, she said, "I would just as soon not respond to that."

Jacobs called the criticism surrounding Kiffmeyer "nine parts atmospherics and one part personality." He said the recount in Florida's 2000 presidential election and intelligence suggesting terrorists want to disrupt this year's election - the "atmospherics" - demand reform and aggressive policing at the polls.

"The big picture is that she has an historic agenda in front of her, one of the most significant changes in an electoral system that is under the threat of terror disruptions," he said.

By "one part personality" he was referring to Kiffmeyer's penchant for speaking publicly about political issues, even though she refuses to campaign for President George W. Bush and doesn't endorse candidates.

"Is it good to have the referee, so to speak, be someone who in off-business hours is favoring one team over the other? I don't know," he said.

Kiffmeyer said much of the criticism is partisan and selective. The security warnings issued to election workers, for instance, included guidance for responding to natural disasters or other problems - not just warnings about terrorists.

Besides, she said it's "a new time, a new era." Few ever imagined that a bombing would affect an election "like it did in Madrid," she said, in reference to elections in Spain in which the governing party that supported the invasion of Iraq was defeated at the polls after train bombings that killed 200 people.

"Ultimately, you have to get the job done," she said. "You don't have the luxury of doing it in a different style."

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