“…we have a success story in Minnesota with our democracy and elections, not perfection, but a real success story.”
By: James J. Berreth, Government and Political Writer with The Metropolitan
ST. PAUL Minn. – Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with the Minnesota Secretary of State, Steve Simon at his office to discuss[VM1] his recent reelection and the many differences this election cycle brought about. We also discussed the many voting initiatives he has instituted during his time as secretary of state, and the ways in which his office has helped encourage students to become familiar with the voting process for state elected officials as well as federally elected officials.
For those who may be unaware, Steve Simon was born Dec. 12, 1969, and is a graduate of Hopkins High School in Minnetonka Minn. He holds several degrees, graduating first from Tufts University with a bachelor’s degree in political science before receiving a juris doctor from the University of Minnesota Law School. Before serving as secretary of state, Simon served as representative for Minn. Congressional district 46b – which includes portions of Hopkins and Edina – for 5 terms from 2004 until 2012. In 2014, Simon became the Minn. Secretary of State after narrowly defeating Dan Severson and was reelected in 2018 and – most recently – on Nov. 8, 2022.
When asked what differences he noticed in terms of the elections held last year, Simon had this to say, “It was so different from previous years, because since the last time I ran in 2018, so much happened with our democracy. We had the 2020 election, we had the waves of disinformation about our election system, which in their most extreme form, showed up in things like the storming of the capitol on January 6th.” Simon goes on to describe[VM2] the 2022 elections as a crisis moment, adding“democracy was on the ballot in 2022 in a way that it had not been before.”
Simon’s statement – and belief – on misinformation intentionally used in political discourse, and the threats to democracy due to misinformation, are shared by many, me included. Just before the 2022 elections, I wrote an article on this very topic because, at that time I was concerned for the future of our nation seeing as there were as many as 345 election deniers (those that adhere to the belief that the 2020 presidential election was stolen) running for various offices. This feeling of unease was compounded by the nature of mid-term elections themselves. Under normal circumstances, mid-term election results serve as a strong indication of public approval – or disproval – of the sitting president, and with President Biden’s approval rating hovering around 40 to 44 percent, the 2022 mid-terms were shaping up to include major gains by Republicans in the House and Senate. As we now know, these mid-terms ended up serving more as a message to reactionaries, conservative republicans, and former President Donald Trump, as the candidates he chose and endorsed fared poorly.
The ripple effects from the 2020 elections, misinformation, and the polarization of America are felt right here in Minnesota. The candidate opposing Simon in the 2022 race for secretary of state was an election denier and misinformation peddler herself, Kim Crockett. Like so many of her contemporaries, she too lost in her bid for office.
But for Simon and his family, Crockett was far from their only challenge when seeking reelection. I asked Simon if he had suffered any harassment due to his religion or heritage seeing as he is Jewish. To this he said, “There was one this last campaign cycle where people who wanted to defeat me had used antisemitic images, although they claimed not to know they were antisemitic. Even if they didn’t know, they still contributed to a real, … unnecessarily hateful atmosphere.”
There have been other instances where threats directed at Simon (and his family) were less veiled and had the potential to be much more dangerous. One example, as described by Simon, occurred in 2021, around the time of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol building in Washington. As Simon describes the event, “law enforcement suggested to my wife and I that we move our family out of our house for a few days, maybe go to a hotel because there was reliable intelligence that armed protestors were coming to our house.” While these “armed protesters” never did show up at the Simon residence, law enforcement did have “credible information” that individuals, with similar ideologies as those who overran the Capitol building, were going to show up where not only the secretary of state lives, but also his wife Leia and their two children. This modern-day reality of life as a public servant is one most of us do not have to contend with. The idea of armed insurrectionists arriving at your doorstep would cause most of us to think twice before running for any office and for Simon, he says that is “the roughest part of the job” and that no one “bargains for when they run for office.”
Through it all, Simon remains a source of positivity and he brings that, along with a sense of determination, to the office of secretary of state, which is evident in the changes to voting laws he has initiated throughout his tenure as secretary of state. I asked him about the most recent initiatives he laid out in remarks he made on Jan. 9, and he had this to say, “The specific changes this legislative session … are about strengthening and growing our democracy. I think the voters spoke pretty loudly and clearly last November, not just in Minnesota and not just for this office, but all over the country and they wanted to stand by our democracy. They wanted to strengthen it. I think they’re proud of it …we have a very strong system in Minnesota that values voters … we want to empower voters to be able to participate in the system and … find that balance between access and security.”
Another segment of Simon’s focus resides on not just creating a more equitable and accessible voting booth for every eligible adult voter, but also on educating the youth of our state on the finer points of voting. The initiatives he and his office have spearheaded in this regard include; Students Vote (the mock election program), the Democracy Cup (the statewide collegiate voter turnout competition) and Your Vote Matters (the high school voter education program). Additionally, with his new legislative agenda making its way through the house, 16- and 17-year-olds will be able to preregister to vote. Once they turn 18, the status of their registration will change from ‘pending’ to ‘active’
According to NPR, the number of individuals who voted between the ages of 18-30 saw the second highest turnout rate for this demographic in the past three decades, or more. This is one reason why Simon has implemented the initiatives to help younger voters turn out on election day. As he says, “… we need to start getting young people thinking about themselves as voters before they are voters. And we know that that’s important because if someone thinks of themselves as a voter before they are a voter, they’re much more likely to vote the first time they’re eligible.” He adds that if those between the ages of 18 and 21 vote the first time they are eligible “they’re far more likely to make it a lifelong habit.”
The last of my questions for Simon had to do with H.F.03 which I alluded to earlier. This bill contains Simon’s request for the legislative to consider include automatic voter registration, a permanent absentee list, protections for poll workers and voters alike, and the restoration of civil rights to felons who have been disenfranchised thus giving them their ability to vote provided they meet certain criteria, amongst others. The changes included in this bill, along with the legislation Simon has supported throughout his time as secretary of state, are evidence of what Simon says is a “Minnesota success story with our democracy and elections” and that H.F.03 “is our attempt to build on that.”Simon is confident in the passage of this legislation, and while Democrats control the house, senate and governor’s office, there is bipartisan support for this bill which Simon himself labels as “nonpartisan in origin and nonpartisan in effect.”