Secretary of State visits Albert Lea HS, explains new voter pre-registration process

Published 9:03 am Thursday, August 31, 2023

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By Alex Guerrero

The auditorium was packed with juniors, seniors and some sophomores Wednesday morning at Albert Lea High School as Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon stopped by to talk about the importance of voting.

“What I want to focus today on is the one area of responsibility that gets the most interest, the most attention, I would say gets the most scrutiny, too — particularly as we head into a presidential election year — and that is elections,” he said, noting that was the focus of his office.

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Specifically, he wanted to focus on pre-registration,which is now available to all 16- and 17-year-olds in Minnesota through

“You fill out the information, it’s really, really simple,” he said. “It’s just your name, it’s your address, it’s either your driver’s license number, or if you don’t want to or don’t have that, it’s the last four [digits] of your Social Security [number].”

After filling out a form, someone at the county level would filter/screen the application to verify its accuracy. And when it was certified, that person would be eligible to vote.

“On your 18th birthday, without you doing anything, without you thinking about anything, without you checking with anyone, you will be added to the list of people who can walk into any polling place or order a ballot to come to you,” he said. 

Now, he argued, was a key time to be in and around democracy, adding that presidential primaries start the first week in March 2024. Voting to decide who will represent their party in the general election begins in the third week of January.

According to Simon, Minnesota was not the first state to implement the law.

“The idea is to get all of you thinking about yourselves as voters even before you actually, technically are,” he said, explaining the reason for that was because studies showed people who voted in the first cycle they were eligible to were more likely to make it a habit.

He argued voting served as a person’s voice and power, which he said was meaningful and shouldn’t be left on the table.

“It’s a good thing for you,” he said. “It’s not just some selfless act. People and communities that vote get attention.”

It was also in the students’ interest as well.

He addressed the reasons people had in not voting as well, including the argument one vote wouldn’t make a difference.

“Nearly every single election [in Minnesota], including one just a few weeks ago in the August primary, is decided by one vote,” he said, citing a Lake County commissioner spot that was decided by one vote.

Another reason people may be disinclined to vote: Ballot length with elections involving offices people may not know anything about.

“Go in and vote for the contests you have an opinion on, even if it’s two or three or one or five, and leave the rest blank,” Simon said. “There’s no harm in that, there’s no rule that says your ballot is spoiled if you don’t vote all 35 contests on the ballot.”

As for the argument that not voting was a protest, he said failure to vote was not an act of rebellion but rather an act of surrender.

“You might think you’re striking a blow for a cause or you’re making a statement, but really you’re giving up,” he said. “You’re surrendering that valuable thing you did at age 18. You’re leaving it on the table.”

Doing that, he said, was doubling the vote of someone who disagreed with you.

Another new law: Automatic voter registration for anyone 18 and older who receives or renews their driver’s license and is eligible to vote.

“We sort of knit together and coordinate and oversee that [voting] process,” he said. “We provide all sorts of legal guidance and policy guidance.”

His office also creates and runs databases that serve as a spine for voter registration. They also do policy work in St. Paul, the state’s capitol, as well as Washington, D.C., with the help of their federal partners.

“I like to say that I and our office are in the democracy business,” he said.

His office doesn’t count votes either, and he informed students counting happened within cities and counties across the state. 

Nor do they hire, train or pay polling place staff.

“All those folks who really make the system run, who greet you at the polling place and help register people, help people put ballots in the machines and all of that, they are hired and trained and paid here in Albert Lea, or in townships or in counties across the state of Minnesota.”

According to Simon, there were more than 3,000 polling places around the state, adding the state was “really, really good” when it came to voting.

“For three of the last four elections, Minnesota was number one in America in voter turnout,” he said.

He believed the reason for that was because of the laws already in place in the state, laws that made balancing voting access and security easy.

Simon ended his presentation with a quick discussion regarding election judges (those people staffing polling places), something available for anyone starting at 16.

“It is a paid position,” he said, adding election judges were even paid for training, something that could be done online.

The state needed 30,000 people.

“It’s a really great opportunity to see democracy up close,” he said.

He ended his presentation by sharing his predictions for what could occur leading up to next year’s presidential election.

“Presidential elections really get people’s attention more than any other for all the obvious reasons,” he said. “The stakes are high, it’s a national thing.”

To that effect, he encouraged the audience to use trusted sources to filter information regarding issues such as voter fraud.

“I don’t want anyone not to vote because they believe that there’s some — to use my example — corrupted election machines changing votes,” he said. “I wouldn’t want one person to swallow that kind of story whole and think, ‘Wow, why would I participate in this? My vote’s just going to be switched.” 

Brittany Utzka, a social studies teacher at Albert Lea High School, hoped Simon’s message would inspire and empower students to preregister.

“Democracy is not a spectator sport,” she said. “You can’t just sit around and wait for other people to make these decisions for you.

“If you have a strong enough opinion you get out there, you vote, you protest, you make sure that your voice is heard,” she said.

Students also took the message to heart.

“I thought it was awesome,” said Jaylee Waters, a senior at the school, referring to Simon’s presentation. “It was very informational. Not a lot of students know much about voting, granted we have our government classes.”

Speaking with her peers before the event, Waters said other students weren’t quite sure what to expect, and felt students her age were less involved in politics.

“You have some very avid political kids, but you really don’t see that much nowadays in my opinion, at least from what I’ve seen at the high school,” she said.

She was also appreciative of Simon taking time to stop by the school, and said she planned to pre-register to vote.

“I’m super-excited to make an impact on the world and actually have a voice,” she said.