Answering the S.O.S. for Election Reform

Katherine Harris. Ken Blackwell.

These names are almost expletives for the hundreds of thousands of Americans who developed a passionate interest in the dire state of our electoral system since the 2000 election disaster.

Harris, of course, was the Florida secretary of state who was widely suspected of working behind the scenes to hand Florida's 25 electoral votes to George Bush. Ken Blackwell is the standing secretary of state of Ohio who, it was later revealed, suppressed the vote in the 2004 presidential election. Much of the distress about recent election outcomes has led to the birth of a movement to halt the use of unaccountable and unverifiable voting machines.

But there is also widespread concern about a resurgence of efforts to suppress the voting rights of minorities. And there's dismay at the prospect that standing progressive election reforms like election-day voter registration and public funding of elections may have to be defended from campaigns to repeal them. Given recent election history the public has the right to question whether or not their votes will be fairly counted. Moreover, much of the attention given to elections and our democratic process comes out of a growing disatisfaction about our political systems in general.

The coming 2006 elections offer activists and political donors who want election reform the opportunity to support at least two secretary of state candidates who have bold and pro-democratic positions on voting rights and voting machines: John Bonifaz in Massachusetts, Mark Ritchie in Minnesota. If elected they would join Bill Bradbury of Oregon and Deborah L. Markowitz of Vermont, two standing secretaries of state widely considered to be leaders in progressive election reforms.

John Bonifaz is a voting rights attorney and founder of the National Voting Rights Institute, which he founded in 1994 in Boston. Bonifaz has also worked for public funding of elections He was a leader in the push for Ohio's recount effort starting on No. 3, 2004. Bonifaz, with his father, also works at a private law firm that handles international environmental and human rights cases.

Mark Ritchie has been involved in Minnesota politics for the past 20 years. He is a founder of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and has served as its director since 1986. During the 2004 elections he helped create and lead the November 2nd campaign, a coalition of over 1,000 organizations and activist groups that worked to register five million new voters and turn out 10 million on Election Day.

Bonifaz is running for the Democratic Party nomination against the incumbent office holder, and Ritchie is running for the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party nomination to face the Republican incumbent in the general election. AlterNet spoke with the two candidates to learn more about why they decided to run.

AlterNet: What pushed you to run for the office?

Bonifaz: I've been involved in the political arena all my career. This is just a different side of it. I've been engaged in fighting for the right to vote as an attorney and as a constitutional scholar, but I believe that the secretary of state position is a pivotal one for providing a model for free and fair elections for the country. Secretaries of state in most states, including Massachusetts, serve as chief elections officers. The fact is that, after Ohio in 2004, we've seen that secretaries of state can be on the wrong side: actively engaged in resisting the right to vote. Or as we've seen in recent elections, they may be silent in the face of voting rights violations. And then there can be proactive leaders.

I want to be a proactive leader for the right to vote and voting reform.

Ritchie: In the case of the secretary of state of Minnesota, Mary Kiffmeyer, in recent years there have been so many different aspects of her administration -- attempts to keep Native Americans from being able to vote, manipulating the election process -- which were in direct contradiction of the oath of office she swore to uphold. And Kiffmeyer was taking Minnesota backward in its leadership in this country on election issues, including her public opposition to our existing Election Day registration system. Election Day registration is a central reason for why Minnesota leads the nation by four percentage points in voter turnout, and she's on record and quite vocal about trying to get it repealed.

So, out of those experiences, I decided that somebody needed to run against her. After going to Camp Wellstone in January 2005 and discussing it with my wife, we decided that I was the person to take on this challenge.

AlterNet: John Bonifaz, why did you decide to run this time, in this election, and not before?

Bonifaz: After 12 years of working on voting and election reform, I've seen the role that secretaries of state have on the process. After the Ohio recount case in particular, it's clear that we need individuals who will use the office to improve our democratic systems, who will show people that secretaries of state can be leaders, something other than what Katherine Harris in Florida in 2000 and Ken Blackwell in Ohio in the last election became.

AlterNet: What are some of the things you are promising the people in your campaign?

Bonifaz: I have up on my campaign site a voter's bill of rights. First, count every vote. This gets to the heart of the problem of electronic voting machines -- in that they don't give verifiable and trustworthy vote counts. As secretary of state of Massachusetts, I will not contract with any private voting machine company that doesn't offer access to the source code and data, offer a paper trail or offer the opportunity for public ownership of the machines. I'll work with other secretaries of state to fight these voting companies.

Other things my campaign will fight for are Election Day voting registration, which six states already have going, and I want to enact public funding of elections in Massachusetts.

Ritchie: To ensure that all Minnesotans can vote with ease and dignity. And that the citizens can trust the outcomes of elections in Minnesota. Finally, that the office can never again be used for partisan purposes.

In Minnesota's rural and sparsely populated areas, of which there are a lot, we need to be experimenting with new voting methods -- like vote by mail and voting centers. In some areas of Minnesota, it's not easy for elderly people to drive through November blizzards to fill out their ballots. We need to make it easier for them to vote.

AlterNet: Mark Ritchie, what about voting machines themselves?

Ritchie: Well Minnesota only has optical scanning machines and hand ballots. So, we're not in the bad situation like some other states that have machines that are designed to prevent recounts because of their lack of a paper trail or other verifiable means of auditing the vote tallies.

AlterNet: There's almost as much public resistance and suspicion to optical scanning machines as the ones that Diebold puts out.

Ritchie: Minnesotans like them. They are the machines of choice here for anyone that runs elections. It's easy to get very nervous about the entire voting system, top to bottom, given what we've seen in 2000 and 2004. And certainly we are a nation with a deep and long history of election fraud. But the point here is all voting systems need mechanisms for review. We feel that optical scan machines that are compliant with the Help America Vote Act that are in place in Minnesota work very well.

The key is to have a society that is willing to invest in having the best democracy possible.

AlterNet: How are you going to run your campaign?

Bonifaz: This is going to be a vibrant, outsider grassroots campaign. We're going to be tapping into a lot of energy that's out there about the state of our election systems, and this campaign will give a lot of regular people a chance to address the problems in our democracy as it stands today.

The incumbent, William Francis Galvin, a longtime incumbent has raised $1.7 million for his reelection, which is designed to scare off serious opposition, but my campaign will be competitive. We are already building our field staff, and we have a great campaign manager in place.

Ritchie: Minnesota has very strict campaign finance laws that limit my campaign to a low budget. And that requires it to be a strictly grassroots campaign. So we've gone out and already signed up nearly 2,000 individuals who have said they've endorsed my campaign and will organize other voters for my campaign. Over the last year we raised about $75,000 -- all of which came in $100 or smaller contributions. That's grassroots fundraising. And we are of course working with community groups and trade groups necessary.

Another part of the campaign that's been very important is having contact with the stakeholders who have day-to-day contact with the secretary of state office. I've been meeting with county officials -- auditors, recorders, treasurers, township officials -- in every county that I can get to. We've already been in about 60 counties. Finally, because I'm challenging an incumbent with a very strong base in the religious right of the Republican Party, it means I have to be very active in getting what I'm saying out into the public.

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