Minnesota’s nationally known civic virtue shows itself in many ways. Chief among them is election turnout. In both presidential and midterm elections, this state often leads the country in voter participation. Yet, there is a problem. No, not voter fraud, but, ironically, voter participation. Because despite the state’s national leadership, in some elections up to 1 million eligible Minnesotans don’t vote.
This is the issue that should matter most when those Minnesotans who do exercise their civic privilege vote for a new secretary of state on Nov. 4. And once this key consideration is taken into account, it’s clear that Steve Simon, who represents portions of St. Louis Park and Hopkins in the Legislature, is uniquely well suited to succeed Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, who is not seeking a third term.
Simon, like Ritchie, is a DFLer. But he has built bipartisan consensus to increase voter participation. As chair of the House Elections Committee, Simon was instrumental in passing the “no excuses” absentee voter law, which starting this election makes it easier for Minnesota voters to cast a ballot, as well as the bill allowing online voter registration. And he carried the bill to switch Minnesota’s primary election from September to August to better accommodate state voters living abroad.
This issue is particularly important for military members, who have been a focus for Simon’s GOP opponent, Dan Severson, who represented parts of Sauk Rapids and St. Cloud in the Legislature from 2003-2011. Severson, who served in the U.S. Navy for 22 years before his political career, said last week that military members were “conspicuously excluded” from the absentee voter law, a charge refuted by Ritchie and Simon. In fact, Minnesota has once again been a leader in encouraging military voting. In 2009, the National Defense Committee, a war veterans’ organization, lauded Ritchie for making “military ballot protection a key priority.” And in 2012, the Military Voter Protection Project listed Minnesota among just 15 states for its “leadership in promoting and protecting the rights of American military service members and their families.” Simon is poised to continue this strong support for military voters.
Severson also seems much more concerned over the specter of voter fraud than the facts warrant. Severson backed the 2012 voter ID constitutional amendment, which Minnesota voters wisely rejected. Now, Severson favors a “voluntary voter ID” system to expedite voting. This idea, however innocuous sounding, could create a two-class voting system, which belies the fundamental nature of our democracy.
Severson’s concerns over the potential for voter fraud aren’t borne out by the facts. An analysis from the Citizens for Election Integrity Minnesota about the election some Republicans still seem most troubled about — the 2008 race that resulted in a recount between Sen. Norm Coleman and his DFL challenger, Al Franken — reported 26 convictions for fraud, all due to felons illegally voting. That’s 26 too many, but a minuscule percentage of the over 2.9 million votes cast that year. Most important, over 820,000 eligible voters stayed home that year. Those missing voters should be the focus of Minnesota’s next secretary of state.
Despite the campaign’s concentration on election issues, whoever wins will spend around two-thirds of his time on the business services aspect of the office. Both Simon and Severson acknowledge the need to streamline this function. And that’s also the main focus of Independence Party candidate Bob Helland, who has emphasized business services and technology, as well as his desire to represent the office as a “nonpartisan.”
That’s an emphasis most Minnesotans would approve. But close elections, advances in voting technology and necessary changes in Minnesota’s election laws have often thrust the secretary of state into the partisan crossfire. Politics probably can’t be completely avoided, but Simon’s demonstrable, admirable record of building consensus would be an advantage in the effort to maximize citizen participation in our democracy and maintain confidence in its integrity.