Questions Surround Role of Minnesota Secretary of State in Hotly Contested Senate Race

It has all the makings of an electoral fiasco comparable to the 2000 presidential recount in Florida.

Minnesota's hotly contested U.S. Senate race between Republican incumbent Norm Coleman and his Democratic challenger, Al Franken, has ignited a political firestorm -- and it is swirling around the man who will be a central figure in resolving it: Secretary of State Mark Ritchie.

Ritchie, who has held office since 2006, is the state's top elections administrator, and he is presiding over the ballot recount.

On November 5, the day after Election Day, Coleman led Franken by 725 votes out of a total of 2.9 million. Now the margin has narrowed to 206 votes -- seven-thousandths of 1 percent, small enough to trigger an automatic recount.

With so few votes separating them, Coleman and Franken are engaged in legal warfare. Coleman aides have accused Franken of violating fair campaign practices -- among other things -- by airing a false ad suggesting Coleman had been named on a list of corrupt senators. Franken, for his part, has filed a lawsuit against Ramsey County in an effort to obtain names of rejected absentee ballots.

The official recount process begins Wednesday, Nov. 19, and it will be Ritchie's job to ensure that it is a fair one. But his ties to the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) -- which has repeatedly been accused of voter fraud across the country -- and his reputation for engaging in highly partisan politics have raised concerns among Republicans.

During his 2006 bid for secretary of state, Ritchie was endorsed by the Minnesota ACORN Political Action Committee, and he received political contributions from them.

And his election victory was made possible, in part, by a nationwide partisan effort -- with the help of the Secretary of State Project (SOS), an independent 527 group co-founded by former leader James Rucker.

On Wednesday, Ritchie chose a canvassing board that includes himself, two state Supreme Court justices appointed by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and two district court judges.

The board -- which will certify vote totals and settle differences over disputed ballots once local officials complete their recount -- will be "extraordinarily nonpartisan," Ritchie said.

But, much as Democrats were highly critical of Florida's Republican Secretary of State Katherine Harris in 2000, Republicans say extraordinary nonpartisanship will be nearly impossible for Ritchie in Minnesota. They cite a November 12 interview on MSNBC in which Ritchie said the goal of Coleman's campaign was "to win at any price."

Coleman aides -- outraged by the remark -- issued a press release demanding an apology from Ritchie and said they had lost confidence in his ability to govern fairly.

"When the Coleman campaign raises legitimate ballot security concerns, over instances such as 32 new ballots appearing in the car of a Minneapolis city official, Mr. Ritchie goes on a national media campaign characterizing our actions as political," Coleman campaign manager Cullen Sheehan said.

"His accusation today that our campaign intends to win 'at any price' is offensive, demands an apology and simply underscores our concerns about his ability to act as an unbiased official in this recount," he said.

Ritchie, in a press conference on Wednesday, initially denied making the comment, saying, "I haven't said their campaign is willing to win at any price."

He later explained to FOX News that he was speaking about the Coleman campaign in general terms.

"The Coleman campaign and all campaigns enter this process at a very different place than I do," he said. "And I've said many times that campaigns -- all campaigns -- are out to win, win, and win. That's their goal. And win at every cost is how most campaigns operate."

Despite his critics' suspicions that Ritchie will not officiate over the recount fairly, no one has ever accused him of abusing the power of his position. And he has pledged to hold an "accurate and transparent" recount.

Speaking about the members of the recount board, he said, "Each of us comes from a different place...but they walk through the door and they put on a robe and they become a servant of all the people."

"This office is here to serve every citizen in a nonpartisan and in a very, very fair and transparent way. And so the same expectation that I have of all the justices -- no matter where their appointment might have come from -- is the same expectation that I have for myself," Ritchie said.

Ritchie said criticism is "not unusual" for someone in his role, working under such circumstances.

"Attacking me is fine. It's just part of the process," he said. "There have been some court challenges to various parts of the balloting process that have often come along with a lot of heated campaign rhetoric.

"But challenging me is going to be part of the next month. I'm pretty thick skin."