By Briana Bierschbach
Only once on the 2014 campaign trail did Steve Simon have to correct someone about what Minnesota’s secretary of state actually does. At a Subway restaurant in Duluth, an employee asked him if could help evacuate more American troops from Afghanistan.
“The job starts with the amusing handicap of having the same title as the nation’s chief diplomat, not that most people are confusing me with John Kerry or Hillary Clinton or anything like that,” said Simon. “I had to gently let him know that wasn’t in my wheelhouse.”
For the most part, Minnesotans take their elections very seriously. The North Star State consistently has some of the highest voter turnout numbers in the nation, and races can be close. In fact, back-to-back elections in 2008 and 2010 produced races that were so close they had to go to a recount. And for better or for worse, those contentious contests — particularly the U.S. Senate race between Al Franken and Norm Coleman — has elevated the job of secretary of state.
“[It’s] where people came to know how high the stakes can be in statewide elections and how important this office can be,” said Simon, a DFLer who’s now nine weeks into the chief elections role after prevailing in a close election over Republican Dan Severson last fall. “So for that I’m grateful, to the extent that it made more people aware of how important it is.”
But Simon’s style is in stark contrast with the last few people who’ve held the job, particularly the energetic if sometimes controversial DFLer Mark Ritchie, who was regularly a source of ire for Republicans during his eight years in office. They accused Ritchie of partisan bias as the lead referee in the Franken-Coleman recount, even though state courts upheld the result. He was criticized again, in 2012, when he tried to change the ballot titles of two GOP-led ballot initiatives, including one to mandate voter ID at the polls, a move that was later struck down by the Minnesota Supreme Court. And he made waves one last time before leaving office with his decision to implement online voter registration before getting legislative approval, a move that was also shut down by the courts.
Simon, 45, has already shown how different his tenure is going to be. A self-professed elections geek from Hopkins, he has 10 years of experience working in the state House, with friends on both sides of the aisle. Even so, he’s also pushing an ambitious agenda of election changes, policies that range from allowing high-schoolers to preregister to vote to opening up the voting roles for two weeks before Election Day, though — true to form — he promises everything will be done in its own time. And with bipartisan support.
“Mark [Ritchie] is very enthusiastic and passionate and can be voluble,” said Rep. Ryan Winkler, a Golden Valley Democrat who became close with Simon during their time in the Legislature. “Steve, while equally passionate, tends to channel that more through reason and kind of a cool restraint that I think is a good skill to have as secretary of state.”
The ultimate elections geek
Simon said he got interested in elections while working on campaigns between getting his undergraduate degree at Tufts University and earning his law degree at the University of Minnesota. But he really became fascinated with the mechanics of elections the same time lot of people did: during the 2000 presidential race between Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore, and the subsequent recount.
“The year 2000 was when people really started paying attention,” Simon said. To reinforce his election geekiness, Simon proudly displays a unique birthday present in his office: a voting machine from Palm Beach County, Florida, the state that eventually decided the outcome of the Bush-Gore election. “It’s a piece of American history,” he said.
After working in the Minnesota attorney general’s office under Skip Humphrey and Mike Hatch, Simon ran for a House seat in 2004. He won, and was immediately appointed to the chamber’s elections committee. He became a strong proponent for things like National Popular Vote and retention elections for judges, and helped strike a compromise between then Gov. Tim Pawlenty and legislators to move the state’s primary election up from September to August.
In 2012, he opposed the ballot initiative supported by a Republican-controlled Legislature to require a photo ID to vote. After the amendment failed and Democrats reclaimed the majority in the House, Simon was appointed chair of the House Elections Committee. It was in that role that he achieved what he counts as his biggest success, a push to institute no-excuse early absentee voting for all Minnesotans.
“It was a total game changer,” Simon said. “Now anyone can vote from home, vote from their kitchen table. My favorite stat is we had a 55 percent spike in absentee voting since the last nonpresidential election … that tells me that people in the state really like the flexibility of voting at a time and a date that is not necessarily the second Tuesday after the second Monday, for a 13-hour period.”
He cites those absentee voting statistics to argue in favor of a full-fledged early voting law, which would put Minnesota in line with 33 other states and the District of Columbia in allowing residents to cast their vote before Election Day. Simon wants Minnesotans to have a two-week window to vote before the polls officially open. “They want that flexibility, so why not go the little extra way to early voting?” he asked.
But Simon says he won’t do anything that doesn’t meet a standard that past and present governors have required for all election bills: support from members of both parties. When it comes to bipartisan support for early voting, Simon simply said: “We’re working on it.”
He already has Republicans and Democrats on board with a few of the other proposals he’s pushing. That includes a proposal to allow high-school students to preregister to vote, which would set them up to vote after they turn 18. “It’s about getting good habits started early,” he said. Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt also supports a proposal to move the primary earlier in the year, to June, and Republicans are carrying another bill to extend military absentee voting privileges to National Guard members called on to serve by a governor.
His decade in the House has earned him some love — and, more important, trust — from the other side of the aisle.
“Relationships are important,” said Simon. “One thing I bring to this job is 10 years in the Legislature. I think that is a net plus. When it comes to legislators, I know them and they know me and I think misunderstandings are less likely to happen with me.”
Indeed, the Republican chairman of the House Government Operations and Elections Committee, Tim Sanders, said he and Simon meet regularly to talk about possible election changes and that they always had an “open line of communication” as legislators. In other words, he’s not particularly worried that Simon will try to implement election changes without any input from lawmakers.
“As legislators, we certainly need to watch for something like that, but I’m not worried about him doing anything that is untoward,” Sanders said. “The bipartisan requirement is the ground rule that we all have to play by. I know we don’t agree on a lot of things, but he’s certainly someone we can work with, and I think Minnesota is in good hands.”