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Students Blanca Zuniga, from left, Irma Villarreal and Melody Ahlbrecht talk Thursday with Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie at Ridgewater College in Willmar. Ridgewater's Student Senate is leading a campus effort to register students to vote in Minnesota, and Ritchie helped distribute voter information at the school. (Tribune photos by Ron Adams)

Minnesota secretary of state registers voters at Ridgewater

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WILLMAR -- More than 80 students have registered to vote this week at Ridgewater College.

The Student Senate started the effort this week, part of a competition among the state's colleges to register young people.

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It got a boost Thursday with a visit from Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, who distributed voter information to students in the cafeteria on the school's Willmar campus. Red and white "I Will Vote" stickers and free popcorn sweetened the deal.

Ritchie, whose office is in charge of state elections, said he has been visiting campuses all over the state to encourage young people to register.

Student Senate president Kristin Kahle of Winsted said some students were interested in registering. "Some say, 'not for me,'" she added.

"We try to encourage them" to register, said Nic Carlson, another member of the Student Senate. Kahle said they don't argue with anyone who doesn't want to register.

Kahle, Carlson and other members of the Student Senate worked at a registration table during Ritchie's visit. They started registering voters this week.

The students said they have a goal of registering 185 students at Ridgewater. If they can surpass the goal by 10 percent, they will get special recognition and bragging rights with other campuses across the state.

Ritchie said experience has shown that getting people registered and voting when they are young can develop a lifelong habit.

Ritchie said he is also using his visits to encourage people who plan to vote by absentee ballot to take care of it early, "so if they make a mistake, it can be caught early."

The August primary had more voters than he expected and more absentee voters than he expected, he said. While he was happy to be wrong, he said, he's been hesitant to make many predictions about the November turnout.

"That indicates to me that there will be a large number (of absentees) in the general election," he said.

"Hot local races" are likely to drive voter turnout this year, since there's no presidential or U.S. Senate race in Minnesota, he said.

Another initiative this fall is to recruit people to vote in honor of a veteran they know, Ritchie said.

He and several others wore buttons saying they were voting in honor of a veteran. The buttons had a blank space to fill in with the name of a veteran. Carlson wore one with the name "Isaac" on it, to honor his brother who just finished Army basic training in Georgia. Ritchie's button said "Alfred Ritchie," his father who served in the Pacific during World War II.

Ritchie said he hopes the focus on veterans will "get people to think about voting in the larger context of service to the nation."

Ritchie is also running for re-election this fall against Republican challenger Dan Severson, a state representative from Sauk Rapids. He said it can be difficult to be in charge of the entire election while being a candidate as well. During the day, his focus is on things like the next major deadline in the election timeline, he said, and he switches gears to the campaign in the evening.

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Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

(320) 214-4340
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