Three candidates for Minnesota secretary of state were scheduled to debate Tuesday night at Coffman Union, and an unanticipated guest spiced things up with her late entrance.
The debate, which various student organizations sponsored, was scheduled to host Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party candidate Mark Ritchie, Bruce Kennedy, who is running “for independent voters,” and Independence Party hopeful Joel Spoonheim.
But Republican incumbent Mary Kiffmeyer made a surprise appearance, arriving after the opening statements and the first question.
Kiffmeyer was invited to the debate, but organizers said she did not issue a response to them.
Upon her arrival, Kiffmeyer said she had just returned from Duluth, unexpectedly having enough time to attend the debate.
Maggie Dalzell, leader of the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group’s Democracy Task Force, said the debate was meant to educate voters on a lesser-known race.
“The secretary of state isn’t a high-profile race, but it’s obviously still a race you vote on, and you need to know the candidates,” she said. “This is just an effort to bring one of the smaller races out to be more visible.”
About 50 people, mostly students and older adults, were in attendance.
Duties of the secretary of state include promoting voting and administering elections – keeping them efficient and accessible.
The debate consisted of questions prepared by the host organizations, followed by an open forum for audience members to ask their own questions.
In his opening statement, Ritchie criticized Kiffmeyer and the current state of democracy in Minnesota.
“I’m running for secretary of state because (Kiffmeyer) is one of those in this nation who has made it her project to try and keep people from voting and manipulate the outcome of elections,” he said. “I’m running for secretary of state because it’s time we had a champion for democracy in that office.”
Spoonheim said he is focused on how votes are handled.
“I think that when you show up to vote, you need to know one thing: that your vote is going to get counted,” he said.
Kennedy called for Republican support.
“On fiscal issues, I’m more conservative than (Kiffmeyer),” he said.
Kiffmeyer said she wants to maintain the standards she has set in her previous terms.
“I’m running on a platform of keeping Minnesota number one in voter turnout,” she said.
In response to a question about outreach efforts to increase student-voter turnout, Spoonheim said he would work with campus presidents to increase opportunities for candidate interaction with students.
Kennedy said it is up to the community and interested groups – not the secretary of state – to accomplish that goal.
“I don’t think it should be the taxpayer paying me to go around asking people to vote,” he said.
Ritchie said barriers impeding young voters need to be evaluated and the voting process needs to be simpler and more accessible.
Regarding instant runoff voting, Kennedy said he was among the first to get bills passed in its favor at the Capitol.
“The elected should be chosen by a majority,” he said.
Ritchie said he worked with the Better Ballot Campaign, which works to integrate instant runoff voting into the election process.
Kiffmeyer was the lone critic of the idea, citing a concern for voters’ understanding of the suggested system.
The means by which voters can cast ballots was a key issue at the debate, and voting efficiency proved an important issue among the candidates.
Kiffmeyer said she has encouraged the use of absentee ballots throughout her tenure. The real cause of long lines at polling places, though, is not having enough election judges, she said.
Ritchie and Spoonheim supported wide use of absentee ballots and early voting that allows voters a 10-day cushion to cast ballots.
If it increased turnout, Kennedy said, he would consider early voting, though he still values the current system.
“I really like the idea of private voting in a public place. You cannot bribe somebody or put them under duress (when they vote),” he said.
Spoonheim also said that to increase efficiency and involvement, he would work with universities to establish a “voter registration week” during which college students would be able to register in classes early in the school year.
Each candidate specifically stated the importance of young people’s votes in this election.
“I was really glad to see a full room,” Ritchie said after the debate. “What it says to me is that students are interested, and it’s good Mary Kiffmeyer decided to show up tonight.”