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Attracting young voters among big issues

ST. PAUL -- The candidates for Minnesota's top elections official each has his own strategy to sell the state's younger generation on the importance of casting a ballot.

Increasing voter turnout among young adults is one of several issues separating the candidates running to be the next secretary of state.

Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer, a Republican, said a cornerstone issue of her eight years in office has been to increase civic participation among younger Minnesotans.

Two of her opponents, DFLer Mark Ritchie and Joel Spoonheim of the Independence Party, said Kiffmeyer hasn't done enough on that issue.

Kiffmeyer, 59, who is seeking re-election to a third term, said her campaign to boost turnout has taken her to 200 schools across the state. She said the percentage of Minnesotans ages 18 to 24 who went to the polls increased from 42 percent to 63 percent between 1998 and 2004; she took office in 1999.

Kiffmeyer suggested her efforts played a part in the increase.

"That's a pretty significant increase," she said, crediting her patriotic appeal to young voters that the United States is a "great country and we need you to be involved."

Ritchie, 54, said turnout among young voters still lags far behind other demographic groups. He has suggested putting more pressure on politicians to address issues concerning young adults and creating more opportunities for teen-agers to learn about the voting process before they turn 18.

"More needs to be done," Ritchie said.

At 36, Independence Party candidate Joel Spoonheim is the youngest candidate in the race. He said his age could be an advantage when trying to attract young adults to the polls.

But Spoonheim, who co-founded an organization to develop young civic leaders, said voter turnout will increase only if elected officials get citizens involved in finding solutions to problems plaguing health care and other topics.

The candidates are also talking about other voting issues as the Nov. 7 election nears.

If re-elected, Kiffmeyer said she would build on her record of making it easier for voters to get election information. Kiffmeyer said she also wants to further expand the secretary of state's Web site.

Ritchie has shaped his campaign around a four-point "commitment" to voters. That includes more accountability and ensuring fair registration and voting, accurate election results and non-partisan administration of the office.

If elected Nov. 7, Ritchie said he would see that employees within the office's elections division are non-partisan and not political appointees. He also plans to establish an advisory panel including local election officials, "so that all of the stakeholders feel like they are part of the process."

A goal for Spoonheim, if elected, would be to "restore confidence" that the Secretary of State's Office is non-partisan and administers elections fairly, which he said would lead to higher voter turnout.

Bruce Kennedy, a Twin Cities area attorney running for secretary of state as an independent, said his key campaign issue is promoting instant run-off voting, whereby voters would rank candidates rather than just pick one. The procedure could eliminate runoff and primary elections.

In addition to elections, the secretary of state also is responsible for registering businesses in Minnesota.

Kiffmeyer said she would like to make it easier for companies to handle their state filings on the Internet. Ritchie said the office must improve its service to voters, candidates and businesses.

Spoonheim said the first step toward helping businesses would be to make the business services office more visible by posting a sign outside the building, an office relocated last year to about eight blocks north of the Capitol.