It’s the only statewide race in Minnesota this year not to feature a DFL incumbent, which could be why the typically low-interest race for secretary of state has started to heat up in recent days.

The incumbent, Democrat Mark Ritchie, is stepping down this year after two terms. The three major-party candidates running to replace him are Rep. Steve Simon, DFL-Hopkins; former Rep. Dan Severson, a Republican who represented Sauk Rapids; and the Independence Party’s Bob Helland, a former state employee from St. Paul.

“We’ve always said it’s going to be close,” DFL Chair Ken Martin said. GOP Chairman Keith Downey said his party sees the race as one of their best pickup opportunities this year. The last Republican secretary of state was Mary Kiffmeyer, who served from 1999 to 2007.

Severson, who served in the Legislature from 2003 to 2011, ran against Ritchie in 2010, but lost by about 70,000 votes. After internal polling by both parties showed a tight race, the DFL ratcheted up its attacks on Severson for a series of comments he’s made about voter fraud in Minnesota. Severson has proposed measures he said would improve poll access for members of the military.

Overseeing state elections is a principal responsibility of the office. At several public forums, and in an interview, Severson raised suspicions that Sen. Al Franken’s 2008 election win was attributable to voter fraud.

“I think there is enough to put some cloud over that, to say, was that really legitimate?” Severson said. He said at the time that he had heard allegations from several poll workers of unusual circumstances at several voting sites, but was never able to persuade any county attorneys to investigate.

Simon said raising such allegations with no proof is irresponsible. He also cited a 2012 media report in which Severson was quoted describing President Obama’s re-election as “immoral.”

“Do people want that kind of harsh and divisive figure in the office?” Simon asked.

First elected to the Legislature in 2004, Simon most recently served as chairman of the House Elections Committee. He was chief sponsor of the bill that created Minnesota’s new “no excuses” absentee voting system, which passed with bipartisan support and has been touted by both parties. Simon said if elected, he would seek to move Minnesota toward a more expansive system of early voting now employed in a number of states.

As an alternative to mandatory voter ID, which was rejected at the polls, Severson is proposing what he calls “express lane voting,” which would give voters who bring government-issued IDs quick access to a ballot. Those without such IDs would have to wait in line to go through a longer registration process.

“It’s not going to disenfranchise anyone,” Severson said, and would reduce workload for election judges. Simon criticized the proposal as taking a “separate but equal” approach.

Helland said he doesn’t think Minnesota has a big problem with voter fraud. He said Minnesota elections are well-managed and that his focus would be on other duties of the secretary of state, which includes licensing and regulating businesses.