BRYAN FAUST/Herald photo

Rallying before a bustling lunch crowd on Library Mall Thursday, Democratic secretary of state candidate Scot Ross called for strict protection of the opportunity to vote, stressing the importance of student involvement.

"As your secretary of state, I'm going to make sure young people are encouraged and registered to vote and have a seat at the table of leadership," Ross said at the rally. "That's where you belong."

At his first stop on his 100-hour tour of college campuses around the state, Ross addressed his vision of change, adding that if elected, he would be the youngest statewide elected official in Wisconsin history. Incumbent Democratic Secretary of State Doug La Follette has held the position for seven four-year terms, and, according to Ross, has been silent on the campaign issues, namely elections reform.

Taking office in 1974, La Follette entered without the power to directly affect elections, as the State Elections Board had already been developed into a tri-partisan committee appointed by members of state government and state political parties. But La Follette said he has always been concerned with protecting elections, and that Ross has not taken a clear stance on important issues.

"[Ross] can't find any other issues to talk about, so he is focusing on this one issue," La Follette said in an interview with The Badger Herald. "He runs around saying he wants to ensure fair and honest elections, but everyone is in favor of that."

Calls for election reform have been sparked by controversial election decisions in Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004, but most recently by last week's SEB decision that Republican gubernatorial candidate Mark Green return disputed campaign money. Ross said it was necessary that the secretary of state, the third-ranking constitutional official in the state, oversees elections to provide direct accountability.

"Right now, the system we have is completely and utterly unaccountable," Ross said in an interview with The Badger Herald. "It is a bunch of appointees who decide our elections, so they are only beholden to people that appoint them, not us."

But La Follette said it was exactly that type of partisan leadership that was causing the problem.

"In states like Ohio and Florida and California, where the secretary of states stuck their noses in the election when [they] should not have caused real problems," he said. "To have a partisan person with issues of their own in charge is not a safe idea."

He added that states are following a trend of moving away from partisan elected officials running the board and that the focus should be on campaign finance reform, where Wisconsin was once a leader on spending limits.

The contentious elections of this year have spurred the creation of concerned student groups. One such group is the Vote 2006 Coalition, a nonpartisan coalition of students and student organizations created to ensure that University of Wisconsin students are informed and registered to vote.

UW Interim Dean of Students Lori Berquam said she supported the group. In addition, Berquam said students would turn out and vote come November just as they had in the 2004 presidential elections when UW ranked second highest in number of registered student voters at any university.

"There are some important issues on the ballot, and I think it is important to have student voices heard," she said. "Voting is an easy, but crucial, way to be engaged in the community and to be informed in order to hold leaders accountable."