By Brian Bakst
Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon wants to whip the state’s electorate back into shape “to get back up on that medal stand” for being a nation-leading voter turnout state.
The first-term Democrat delivered an Olympic-year pep talk Thursday that also shared some strategies for lifting turnout numbers in his state. In the 2014 election – when the governor’s office and a U.S. Senate seat topped the ballot – Minnesota saw participation sag and it fell out of the top five in turnout.
“To me, it’s about being No. 1 in the country,” Simon said. He estimated that November’s turnout would have to be in the high 70 percent range in November to regain that status. Minnesota has more than 3.1 million registered voters.
“It’s an Olympic year in 2016 and I want us to get the gold medal again,” Simon said in an interview ahead of a lunchtime address on voting initiatives. “For nine elections in a row, Minnesota was No. 1 in vote turnout. And yet two years ago we fell off of our perch. We fell to No. 6. Forty-four states would kill to be No. 6, but that’s not good enough for us.”
Among his ideas are a “Pledge and Reg” program to encourage businesses, nonprofits and other community organizations to conduct voter sign-up drives internally, particularly among hard-to-reach voters. Simon said those groups know their constituencies best and can be better voting ambassadors than a government entity. Apart from registering, voters would complete a pledge-to-vote form that’s mailed to them around Election Day.
Simon said his office will print voter fact sheets and application forms in more languages. He said his office will expand its list to Mandarin, Oromo, Amharic, Laotian and Cambodian. That would come on top of material already offered in English, Hmong, Somali, Spanish, Russian and Vietnamese.
He’s also promoting a Minnesota college ballot bowl, a voter-registration competition on college campuses. He said that type of program has elevated turnout in Utah. The winner gets bragging rights.
“We’re harnessing existing rivalries whether it’s athletic or otherwise between and among campuses to register students to vote,” he said among an electoral bloc notoriously difficult to motivate. “That’s where we really need it.”
As a complement to that, Simon’s office intends to reach out to nearly 100,000 unregistered young voters, including those who just turned 18. He said encouraging earlier registration will also cut down on lines at polling places.
He said his initiatives come at low or no cost. Simon said he won’t approach the Legislature for more money and will reallocate internal resources where needed.