The invisible race: Minnesota secretary of state job up for grabs

Republican State Convention 2012
Republican Dan Severson, a former state representative from Sauk Rapids, is again seeking to become Minnesota secretary of state.
Jennifer Simonson / MPR News 2012

With high-profile races for governor and the U.S. Senate, the Minnesota secretary of state campaign isn't getting much attention. But it's the only general election ballot this year without an incumbent, and the major party candidates are delivering sharply different messages.

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This year's campaign is a repeat performance for Republican Dan Severson. The former state representative from Sauk Rapids ran against DFLer Mark Ritchie in 2010 and lost by 70,469 votes. Ritchie is not running for re-election.

Severson campaigned heavily that year on requiring people to show a photo ID to vote, and he still supports it. But he's changed his approach since Minnesota voters rejected a Republican-backed photo ID constitutional amendment in 2012. He's now advocating for a voluntary photo ID system that would put those voters in a faster line at the polling place.

Many experts say it's not a big problem, but Severson remains convinced that the current election system is vulnerable to voter fraud, particularly through the practice of vouching for the identity of voters on Election Day.

"If somebody votes who's not supposed to, whether they're from Wisconsin or they're a felon or someone else who isn't eligible to vote, it marginalizes the vote of those who vote legitimately," he said.

Another Severson proposal is aimed at increasing the number of active duty military personnel who vote in state elections. He wants to create an online, absentee voting option for soldiers based overseas.

"I mean we have gone to extensive processes here to do the early, no-excuses absentee voting — which incidentally doesn't apply to our military — and trying to enfranchise people to participate in the system. But we haven't made those same efforts in the military, not even close."

When Severson talks about the low number of soldiers voting, he points to about 15 percent of ballots returned and accepted in 2006. But the Minnesota secretary of state's office shows significantly higher rates the next three elections, including nearly 76 percent in 2012.

Steve Simon with his wife Leia
State Rep. Steve Simon of Hopkins is the DFL candidate for secretary of state. Here, he celebrates his nomination in Duluth by kissing the hand of wife Leia Simon.
Paul M. Walsh / For MPR News

A review of last session's omnibus elections bill also counters Severson's contention that soldiers are left out of the new no-excuses absentee voting law. There are no exclusions, and the enacted changes clearly apply to all eligible voters.

State Rep. Steve Simon of Hopkins, the DFL secretary of state candidate, took offense with Severson's allegation, calling it false. Simon was the chief House sponsor of the bipartisan measure, which he calls one of his key accomplishments.

"I carried that legislation for seven years. That was my personal passion, my personal project. And now we have it, so that all of us in Minnesota can vote from home, from our kitchen table, from our couch if we wish, for any reason or no reason."

As secretary of state, Simon said he would advocate for a full-blown early voting system, like the ones in 33 other states.

Simon said Minnesota has a clean and honest election system, with only a "small incidence of voter irregularities." And unlike his GOP opponent, Simon sees no need for a photo ID requirement.

"You always have to ask, is the cure worse than the disease? Sometimes, some of the people who tend to talk a lot about voter fraud — and in my judgment exaggerate the scope and the extent — they tend to be people who have solutions that don't fit the scope of the problem and would disenfranchise many more people."

Minnesota's secretary of state is also responsible many business services, such as registering the names of new businesses and nonprofit organizations. Independence Party Candidate Bob Helland of St. Paul said his focus would be on improving those services, rather than election issues.

"I also think that a lot of candidates get caught up in the legislative issues surrounding elections, talking about photo ID. But really, the secretary of state's task is to enforce those election laws rather than decide what they need to be."

The three major party candidates will appear at a University of Minnesota forum Monday, and again at a League of Women Voters-sponsored forum at Augsburg College on Oct. 28. Libertarian Party candidate Bob Odden is also scheduled to participate in both events.

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