The three-major party candidates for Minnesota Secretary of State quickly separate themselves based on a simple question: Why are you running?
Republican Dan Severson, a former state lawmaker who ran against incumbent Mark Ritchie four years ago, wants to provide clean elections, citing concerns about voter fraud. “That’s why I say this is a nonpartisan issue, because everyone deserves the right to a clean election,” said the retired Navy fighter pilot from Sauk Rapids.
Democrat Steve Simon, the chairman of the Minnesota House’s election committee, says his main goal is to maintain access to elections. “It’s one of those offices that you won’t miss until it’s gone. And by gone I mean it’s in the hands of someone who perhaps does not share the Minnesota view of ballot access,” said the private practice attorney from Hopkins.
Independence Party candidate Bob Helland acknowledges the office is best known for election oversight, but says he wants to streamline its procedures that help residents set up businesses. “This is not a single-function office, and it can’t be talked about that way in the race. I think that’s a disservice to the state,” said the state-employed management analyst from St. Paul.
When discussing the issue of voter fraud, the lines are clear. Severson points to a complaint made during his four terms representing District 14A in the Minnesota House, citing inaction by Ritchie and county officials. “This is during the Franken-Coleman recount,” he said. “It was at that point I thought, ‘You know this is fundamental to our election process — clean elections are fundamental to our election process — and if an individual sees something going wrong and can’t get any traction on it and I as a sitting representative can’t get any traction on it, then we have a huge problem in the system.’ ”
If elected, he said he will check the election system for vulnerabilities while working with county attorneys to research potential voter fraud cases. He also remains a supporter of a voter ID requirement, which failed to be approved as an amendment to the state constitution. He sees the rejection as a decision not to change the state constitution, rather than opposition to the requirement.
His opponents are less skeptical when it comes to voter fraud, but acknowledges a need to be watchful. “We have a minimal incidence of true fraud in Minnesota,” Simon said. “But even a handful of cases, that’s a handful too many.”
Helland agreed, noting “When there is evidence of fraud, I will be the first one to call for investigations.” He said the fraud argument to push for photo ID is misguided since it would not address many concerns regarding voting irregularities.
Helland said he’d like to see current statewide data systems used to validate voter identities and ensure the list is clean. He said that will take time. “I’m not coming in, kicking down the door and say make it happen,” he said. “I want to see it implemented responsibly.”
Simon offers a similar approach, suggesting technology is near to create electronic poll books that could use existing government photos to confirm voter identity. People who don’t have a photo on file could have one taken before they vote. “It would probably mostly satisfy those who hunger for visual verification — government-issued visual verification — and it would probably mostly satisfy those — and I was in this camp — who really really were sounding the alarm about some unintentional consequences on the most vulnerable,” he said.
When it comes to the secretary of state’s role in helping businesses and nonprofit organizations get established in the state, Helland is the loudest voice in the race. “I worked downstream from the secretary of state’s office for the better part of five years as a business registration expert for the department of revenue,” he said. “And when you work downstream from probably any state agency there’s going to be garbage to pick up along the way.”
All three candidates acknowledged the current system lacks coordination between state agencies, which can lead to problems for new businesses and non-profit agencies when they try to register with the state.
Helland said he’s like to create a one-stop shop, while also working with high schools and colleges in the state to ensure students can receive training on how to start their own businesses.
It is clear Helland is pushing the agenda on the issue. Severson and Simon both address the issue, but it is not their top priority. Severson says he’d like to be an ambassador and help the state streamline the process for new businesses, while also working to ensure fees are set at the proper levels to cover costs and nothing more. Simon takes a similar view, actually noting he’d be interested in lowering fees related to online transactions, if the legislature would allow it.
Whether discussing voting or business, all three candidates said partisanship must be thrown out, but some demonstrated that more than others.
Severson often slips into discussing issues from a clear Republican perspective. After losing to Ritchie four years ago, he said he became aware of a lack of support in the metro area. Hoping to address that, he said he reached out to minority groups and new citizens to talk about shared conservative values as a way to get support. Likewise, discussion of his desire to change the same-day registration process quickly led to his criticism of health care reform.
Helland may offer the most genuine take on the office’s need for a nonpartisan official, noting he is neither a democrat nor a republican. With a conservative take on business and his rejection of voter ID, he could easily attract supporters from both parties.
Simon, with years of experience working on election legislation requiring bipartisan support, has the most experience navigating the political divide. “People are used to associating me with those bipartisan efforts,” he said. “They might disagree with me, but I think there’s a trust and confidence there.”
We note he has been effective in that role and willing to include measures to bridge the divide. That is why the Post-Bulletin Editorial Board is endorsing Steve Simon as the next secretary of state.
We liked what we saw in Helland. Often dismissed as a third-party candidate, the 29-year-old showed us a level of understanding that makes him a contender in the race. He’s not reaching for the obvious political vote. Rather, he’s working to address an issue he sees as neglected, and he’s doing a terrific job at it.
If Simon is elected, we hope he will remember Helland’s concerns and ambitions and reach out to him to find ways the secretary of state’s office can work with other agencies to streamline the business side of the office’s responsibilities.
While we liked Helland’s approach, it was Steve Simon’s expertise in voting legislation and his desire to protect access to the ballot that we most admire and see as needed in the office.