This year's election will do more to shape Minnesota's future than in several previous election cycles, says Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie.
He talked with about 15 people Wednesday night on the Bemidji State University campus, as part of a statewide tour of campuses to urge students to register and to vote.
"This year is special, with the fact that it's just going to be about Minnesota," Ritchie said of the non-presidential year election. "It's very important because of the debates that are underway right now and the choices that we'll have to make in the future."
Those include funding decisions about capital investments in colleges and universities, building repair maintenance, plus tuitions costs, availability of scholarship money, student loans."
"There will also be conversations in the future about jobs and how we choose to invest our limited resources to help spur jobs and spur growth," said the Democrat, who will be seeking a second term this fall.
Minnesota has a diverse economy, he said, and decisions need to be made on how the economy is supported in different ways. And the economy is getting better, as business filings in the Secretary of State's Office in 2009 rose 14 percent or 63,000, representing mostly small businesses and limited partnerships.
The high number "is a lot of new enterprises being created in Minnesota," Ritchie said. "That's a really vibrant small business sector. ... They are a very important part of the engine of the creation of new jobs and employment in this state, and how we make decisions in the future to reinforce and support that small business sector will be part of the discussion of this year's election."
This year's elections will be a lot about Minnesota, he said. "That's an opportunity we really haven't had for a number of election cycles. It creates a real possibility of real participation."
This year will be radically different, and Ritchie wants young people who never voted before to pay attention.
A new federal law wants to make it easier for military overseas to cast absentee ballots, so the law mandates that there be at least 45 days between primary and general elections, the latter being Nov. 2.
As a result, the 2010 Legislature permanently moved the primary election from its usual September -- after Labor Day - spot to the first Tuesday after the second Monday in August. That means this year's primary election is Aug. 10.
"When you move the primary, other calendar dates have to change as well," he said. "If some of you (students) won't be here this summer, and you want to participate in the primary election, then you'll need to apply for the absentee voting process earlier, starting June 25."
Filing for state and local offices opens May 19 and closes June 1, which will mean lawn signs will start appearing as summer opens.
Every vote does count this year, he added, as the swing of 1,000 to 2,000 people in the 2010 Census could cause Minnesota to lose a congressional district, dropping from eight to seven. Reapportionment will also affect state races, and he fears the metro area will gain more political power.
"I'm always alarmed with every census, every 10 years, every reapportionment, because it gets clearer that we have to work harder to make sure that the views and issues and concerns of greater Minnesota are represented, articulated well, so we need excellent elected leaders from greater Minnesota," Ritchie said.
Ritchie also encouraged students to become election judges and poll workers, paid positions, to help an aging election judge pool that averages age 72.
Ritchie said he spoke earlier Wednesday to students in Thief River Falls who noted that they may participate as poll workers for the primary as their summer session ends days earlier.
"There is excellent training, you get paid, you get to be part of the democratic process, and it's also a really important way to come to know your community and to know the process of elections even better," he said.
He also urged students to register as soon as they can, even though state law allows Election-Day registration.
In referring to the protracted U.S. Senate race between Al Franken and Norm Coleman, Ritchie said a number of laws and administrative rule changes have occurred to improve and already impeccable process.
Absentee ballots will be handled by the professionals in the county office, rather than at the precinct level by election judges who have worked all day and tired. And the absentee ballots were redesigned with simpler instructions to cut down on voter error.
Still, Ritchie said there were only 14 ballots that were disputed out of 1,000 sent to the courts from an original 3,000 ballots from the State Canvassing Board. And that came from 2.91 million votes cast, a Minnesota high.
"The system works well and we have good integrity in the system," he said.
In a question session, Senate 4 Republican candidate John Carlson argued for mandated use of a photo ID to vote, but Ritchie said courts in other states have found that unconstitutional as was the poll tax in the South."
The Constitution allows only two exemptions from voting - being mentally ill or being convicted of a felony," he said. Also, photo IDs are too easy to fake.
Better, Ritchie said, is the developing technology for mini-computers that would allow access to state motor vehicle records and display the voter's record with photo on the computer. That system today is too costly. It could eventually be used in bars to ID a drinker's age, he added.