Democrats and Republicans are battling over a rare open secretary of state seat, the winner of which will oversee elections in Minnesota for the next four years.

With renewed heat and television ads from both candidates adding to the fray, Republicans and Democrats each believe they have a chance to control the state's next recount, next election fight, and who can vote and how.

Both parties have reason to believe they can win. Democrats have held on to the seat for the past eight years. But the DFL nearly lost it in 2010 when former Rep. Dan Severson came within a few percentage points of winning for Republicans.

Severson is back and is vying against DFL Rep. Steve Simon. Bob Helland is running as the Independence Party candidate.

"I think it is a pretty hot race. I think we are neck and neck," Severson said of the battle against Simon.

Severson and Simon are combatants on the state's latest front in the wars over how elections are run, with partisans digging in on whether access to the polls or fraud prevention should be the election watchword.

The secretary of state's office, now held by retiring DFLer Mark Ritchie, has been at the forefront of the state's 2008 and 2010 statewide recounts, its fight over the two 2012 constitutional amendments and the issue of online voter registration. Ritchie has been hauled into court many times during his term and the next secretary can expect the same bruising.

In recent weeks, Severson and Simon have met in testy debates, Simon released a television advertisement and state DFLers have brought the generally low-dollar race to the fore, hammering Severson on issue after issue. Severson said he plans to air a television ad next week.

For his part, Simon has stressed he would make sure as many people as are eligible get to vote. He is pushing for Minnesota to adopt full early voting and making sure Minnesotans know they can register to vote when they apply or renew driver's licenses.

"The secretary of state should always make it as easy as possible, not harder, but easier for every eligible Minnesotan to cast a vote," he said.

In his campaign, Severson has repeatedly said he believes there is fraud in Minnesota's election system and that election protection is key. Once a backer of requiring Minnesotans to have a photo ID to vote, he has pitched a new "express lane" voting system that would allow Minnesotans willing to present identification to skip through Election Day lines.

"This is another way in which we can secure our system and actually accommodate the voters more effectively," Severson said in a recent forum.

Although both candidates have strong party backing, each pledged they would approach the office without partisanship.

Simon has stressed his bipartisan work in the Legislature, as a balm to GOP feelings rubbed raw in recent election fights. On Wednesday, he said if he were secretary of state, he would ask the next governor to veto election-related measures that lack bipartisan support in the Legislature.

Severson has promised that his secretary's office would "administer fair election processes that ensure partisan neutral policies."

They have clashed in debates but have also found some agreement.

Severson, a military veteran, proposed that members of the military should be able to vote online. That, he said, would ensure the men and women who put their lives on the line would have their voices heard.

Simon has said he is not against online voting but would proceed with caution, given security concerns about such policies.

In turn, Simon on Wednesday said the state should move toward full early voting. This year, for the first time, the state has allowed any voter to cast an absentee ballot in elections. But Simon said Minnesota should go further.

Severson agrees.

"I support early voting as long as we have a verifiable registration system," Severson said.

Rachel E. Stassen-Berger • Twitter: @RachelSB