Disinformation and conspiracy theories about this year's vote are a danger to election workers and democracy itself, Minnesota Secretary of State Simon warned Tuesday at a state Senate hearing called to examine the election's integrity.
With the presidential race's outcome under continued but unsuccessful legal attack by President Donald Trump and allies, Republican state Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer of Big Lake raised questions about pandemic-driven changes to Minnesota's voting procedures that have since been the subject of court wrangling.
Still, Kiffmeyer, a former secretary of state and frequent critic of Simon, said in a subsequent press release that "so far, claims of widespread fraud have not held up under scrutiny or in the courts."
Simon, a Democrat, used the occasion of the Senate hearing to mount another defense of Minnesota's election, calling it "a great big success on multiple levels." The Senate hearing on the outcome of the vote, he said, was "taking place in the middle of a national tidal wave of disinformation, politically inspired lies designed to mislead and manipulate people."
Kiffmeyer, who chairs the Senate's committee on elections, convened Tuesday's hearing to probe questions over voting software and tabulation, in addition to the changes to rules governing absentee balloting before the primary and general elections.
Kiffmeyer defended posing "reasonable questions" about the state's election process. She had previously cited "anecdotal reports of irregular election activities" in her initial request to Simon for a report on this year's elections.
"The best way to get Minnesotans to have confidence in the result and the outcome is to respect those questions transparently and without accusation," Kiffmeyer said Tuesday.
Kiffmeyer also took issue with news reports that contextualized questions about the election's validity by noting that accusations of fraud or irregularities have so far been made without evidence or were otherwise unsubstianted.
But Simon countered that his office has fielded no credible evidence that fraud or manipulation affected Minnesota's outcome. He reminded Kiffmeyer that U.S. Attorney General William Barr recently stated that no credible evidence existed that pointed to widespread election fraud.
Over the weekend, a group of armed protesters gathered outside the home of Michigan's Democratic secretary of state. Simon said conspiracy theories promoted by Trump and allies "have to stop ... they're dangerous in the short term because I think someone might get killed. I think someone in this country, maybe in this state, is going to get killed."
Simon said his own family has been targeted for harassment online.
In Minnesota and nationally, court challenges from Republicans seeking to invalidate certification of the Nov. 3 election results have been rebuffed. Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea, appointed by GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty in 2006, last week rejected a Republican challenge filed just hours before the state canvassing board met to approve the results.
More than 3.2 million Minnesota voters turned out for the general election, Simon noted, a rate that led the nation and smashed previous records for absentee voting. He hailed counties for staffing polling places with enough election judges to stave off the long lines, delays and rates of infection that marred other states' presidential primaries last spring.
Kiffmeyer's inquiry began with a Nov. 18 request for information that telegraphed a continued challenge of state court consent decrees that Simon's office agreed to in preparation for an election during a pandemic. The decrees extended by one week the counting deadline for mail ballots, and waived the witness requirement for absentee ballots.
Those changes came in response to lawsuits from Democratic-aligned groups that alleged existing rules would disenfranchise potential voters.
Republicans assailed the agreement as an illegal end-run to change election law without approval from the Legislature.
"Some of my concerns are that we are having the attorney general, the secretary of state and the courts involved in changing election law during the process of actually conducting the election," Kiffmeyer said. "I think that has opened up some doors that are a concern."
Tuesday's hearing underscored the gulf between Simon and Kiffmeyer that has persisted over election-related legislation. Simon needs approval from Kiffmeyer's committee for any bills to stand a chance of passing the divided Legislature. The two spent all of the 2019 session embroiled in a bitter dispute over federal election security money that approved by Congress but that needed sign-off from the Legislature under state law.
No one at Tuesday's hearing presented allegations or evidence that any state or federal race in Minnesota turned on fraud.
Tuesday's 90-minute hearing is unlikely to be the final word on the state's general election: Kiffmeyer closed by suggesting that another meeting may take place later this month "to follow up while things are fresh in our mind."
Stephen Montemayor - 612-673-1755