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State is gearing up for highest voter turnout in 26 years

DETROIT LAKES - Minnesota could see the highest voter turnout in years this November, and state and local officials are doing what they can to be prepared, according to Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie.

"We're in the process of getting people ready for the biggest year -- 80 in '08," Ritchie said in an interview. "Eighty percent of eligible voters is what we expect for turnout in the 2008 general election."

That would be the highest turnout since 1956, when Minnesota voter turnout was in the low 80 percent range, he added.

The state saw 77 percent turnout in 2004, the last presidential election.

"There are lots of school election votes this year, all the (U.S.) House seats are up, and there are three competitive U.S. House seats, in the 6th, 3rd, and 1st districts," he said.

The 7th district, represented by Collin Peterson of Detroit Lakes, is not considered competitive, but Ritchie noted that voters in the 7th and 8th congressional districts tend to be among the most civic minded and "always have the highest turnout in the state," he said.

The Red Lake Reservation north of Bemidji commonly sees 90 percent voter turnout, Ritchie said.

He once asked a woman there why, and she told him, "We love this land, we love this country, we are very patriotic, and we vote."

Duluth is another place that routinely sees 90 percent voter turnout, he said. When he asks why, the answer is the same: 'Because we're patriotic,' he said.

Ritchie said the state has made several changes in recent years to make it easier for Minnesotans to vote --including residents serving in the military overseas.

The voter turnout for military personnel overseas has been less than 5 percent, he said.

Looking to improve that, he started meeting with demobilized troops at Fort McCoy, Wis., and "we got some very strong language, to the effect that 'I am fighting for democracy, why can't I vote?'"

The problem was a short time frame for the procedure involved in mailing out and returning absentee ballots, which have to be received by local polling officials by 5 p.m. on Election Day.

Many military ballots show up one, two or three days after the election is over, and cannot be counted.

"It drives everybody (election officials) crazy," Ritchie said.

The new law, passed in 2007 (and again in 2008 after the governor vetoed it the first time) provides for ballots to be sent electronically and mailed back, cutting the amount of time required in half.

Ritchie is a DFLer, and the "rhetoric is that soldiers vote Republican," he said. "But I don't care -- 5 percent is an embarrassment."

Another law change is designed to help seniors vote more easily at new polling places when they move to an assisted living or senior apartment complex.

They may not have a driver's license because they no longer drive, and so lack ID for the polling place.

Under the old law, a neighbor could vouch for them as a new resident of the precinct.

But in senior housing they may not know their neighbors on the block.

The new law allows staff to vouch for residents, Ritchie said.

Other new legislation allows the state to use change of address cards from the postal service to update polling place information and cut that type of same-day registration activity in half.

Ritchie wants to remind people of the connection between voting and the people who fight to preserve that right to vote -- those serving in the military, past and present.

To that end, the Secretary of State's Office has launched a popular program that allows people to vote in honor of a veteran.

They are given a button upon which they can write the name of the veteran and wear it to the polls. Ritchie said the demand has been strong.

His office printed 15,000 buttons and they went quickly -- another 50,000 have been ordered. He is seeking private funds to help pay for it.

"We had no way of knowing the response," he said. "and the response has been unbelievable."

Ritchie was in Detroit Lakes recently for the summer meeting of the Minnesota Association of County Auditors, Treasurers and Financial Officers, held at Fair Hills Resort.