Secretary of State Simon targets voting issues

Published 10:13 am Thursday, January 29, 2015

By Matt Hudson

Owatonna People’s Press

OWATONNA — Three weeks into his first term in constitutional office, Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon says that he’s focused on improving access for voters.

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A former five-term state representative of St. Louis Park, Simon hopes to build on the voting tools that premiered in the 2014 election. For the first time, Minnesota voters could register online and cast “no-excuse” absentee ballots.

“I think those two reforms got a big embrace from Minnesota,” he said Wednesday.

Simon carried those measures while in the legislature, which passed with bipartisan votes. The result included thousands of online registrants and a 55-percent spike in absentee ballots, according to Simon, even though overall turnout dipped.

He’s now introducing more initiatives for the current legislature to consider. One of them is a so-called true early voting system. He’s proposing that for a two-week window prior to Election Day, voters would be able to cast ballots that would be counted immediately, like a running tally. He said more than half of U.S. states employ such a system.

The voting would take place in person, and Simon said that an online voting component isn’t in the works right now.

A bill for early voting has been introduced in the House, sponsored by Simon’s former colleague Rep. Connie Bernardy, DFL-Fridley. But with a state budget and massive transportation packages in the works this year, it’s unclear whether or not the GOP-led House will take up voting bills.

While the legislature is in session, Simon said that he wants to bring voting initiatives to lawmakers’ attention.

“At least get the conversation started,” he said. “This is in the lap of the legislature, so they’ll make the decision.”

Simon also pitched an early registration initiative for 16- and 17-year-olds. They could fill out the forms and be pre-registered by the time they hit age 18. It’s about getting teens into the practice of voting, he said.

And as this summer marks the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, Simon said he hopes to spread the word about the importance of voting.

That’s important to the secretary of state’s office, as voter turnout slumped a bit in November. Typically among the highest in the nation, Minnesota fell out of the top five in turnout in 2014, hovering around 50 percent.

Steele County came in just below the state turnout rate in November, closer to 48 percent.

Simon said that while there are technical and logistical barriers to boosting turnout, there are more ideological factors. He said that for some, modern politics has created a cynicism or disconnect that leads people away from polling booths.

He hopes the remedy starts at the newest generation of voters.

“I think engaging young people in particular to register to vote, and be involved, is one way to get around that over time,” Simon said.

Outside of voting, the secretary of state said that his office has been trying to reduce red tape for businesses when possible.