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Contrasts on voter access, fraud

Mike Mosedale//October 8, 2014

Contrasts on voter access, fraud

Mike Mosedale//October 8, 2014

Democrat Steve Simon says Minnesota’s voting system is the best in the country but can still be made better. Republican Dan Severson says it’s far too vulnerable to fraud and is calling for an immediate audit of its weaknesses. And the Independence Party’s Bob Helland just wants to make life easier for businesses by streamlining government services.

Those were among the differing priorities that emerged in the first face-to-face meeting of the three major-party candidates who hope to succeed the outgoing secretary of state, Mark Ritchie.

The fourth candidate on the ballot, the Libertarian Party’s Bob Odden, was not present for the forum, which was held Tuesday evening at the Minneapolis Community & Technical College.

The format did not allow for much in the way of pointed exchanges between the candidates, who were each given four minutes to respond to screened questions from students and scant opportunity to directly engage in rebuttals.

Despite the dearth of rhetorical fireworks, the candidates offered clear contrasts in their visions for the office.

“We have a good thing going in Minnesota,” said Simon, who called Minnesota’s voting system “the envy of the nation” but said it can be further strengthened.

Although the state has boasted highest turnout rate in the nation for nine consecutive elections, Simon said, rates of participation are much lower in certain demographic groups, such as minorities and new Americans.

He said he wants to boost participation through cultural outreach and measures such as printing election information in foreign languages. That practice, he noted, was common in Minnesota a century ago during an influx of non-English-speaking immigrants.

“There’s no reason, in this day and age, why we should not do the same now,” said Simon, a member of the Minnesota House representing St. Louis Park.

As the chairman of the House Elections Committee, Simon said he counted the passage this year of no-excuse absentee voting as the proudest accomplishment of his legislative career.

He said he is “intrigued” by the possibility of a tweak to the state’s motor voter procedure, which allows an opt-in for voter registration via a driver’s license applicants. He said an opt-out option could prove even more effective in boosting turnout.

In response to a question about re-enfranchising convicted felons, Simon said he favors a change that would permit convicts to vote once they are released from prison, the practice in about a dozen states.

In two states — Maine and Vermont — prisoners are permitted to vote but, according to Simon, in Minnesota and most other states, felons must complete the terms of probation before their voting rights are restored. That can lead to confusion about eligibility, he added.

“I think Minnesota will inevitably move in that direction,” he said. “Some people are under the impression they can’t vote. That’s wrong and has to be corrected.”

Severson, a former representative from Sauk Rapids who is making his second bid for the secretary of state’s office, said he understands the impulse to restore voting rights to ex-convicts. But he said that’s a job for the Legislature and would require a constitutional amendment.

“It’s not what feels good. If we want [to make] a change, there is a venue,” said Severson. “The job of secretary of state is to uphold law and the constitution.”

Severson, who listed election integrity as his top priority, vowed to conduct an audit of the election system within his first 100 days in office. He said the importance of election integrity was impressed on him in his first bid for the House, when he won by a margin of less than 400 votes.

He also pointed to the 2008 U.S. Senate race between Al Franken and Norm Coleman. With the margin of victory just 320 votes and 1,009 felons voting, Severson said, that lapse in oversight had a “definite influence” on the outcome.

In the wake of the 2008 Franken-Coleman race, Severson said he was unsatisfied by the Legislature’s subsequent inquiries into allegations of voter fraud.

“The system was broken and it still is. As a result of that failed investigation, I ran for secretary of state,” said Severson. “If I, as a sitting representative, could not get answers, what kind of chance does an average citizen have?”

Severson told students that lax enforcement of the rules not only threatens to alter the outcome of individual races, but that it can also tip control of legislative chambers — sometimes with dramatic consequences.

In one of the few explicitly political assertions of the forum, Severson said the outcome of the Franken-Coleman race hastened the passage of Obamacare, which he said put “one-sixth of economy government control.”

Severson said same-day registration presents “a huge vulnerability,” a vulnerability that can be compounded by allowing voters to vouch for one another without identification.

Although voters rejected a voter ID constitutional amendment in 2012, Severson said he favors the creation of “express lane” voting for people with a valid ID. He said that approach would shorten lines at polling places.

That proposal drew a rebuke from Simon, who said it would effectively create two separate classes of voters and leave those without ID “waiting outside in the cold for a couple of hours.”

“I think that’s the real risk here. I’m very wary of restrictions that would be a cure worse than the disease,” said Simon.

Although he favors early voting, Severson said it should be restricted to two weeks before Election Day so voters have an opportunity to learn as much as possible about the candidates.

Severson said he wants to boost voter participation rates among active military personnel, which he said is under 10 percent.

“If any minority group had that kind of participation rate, we would be incensed,” he said.

Helland, a former information technology worker at the Department of Revenue, said he considers himself “the business service candidate.” As the youngest candidate in the race, Helland, 29, said he would also be the youngest constitutional officer in the country should he be elected.

He vowed to apply his IT skills to streamline the office’s business-related operations and to create “a one-stop shop.” At a chance encounter at a grocery store with Secretary of State Ritchie, Hellend said, Ritchie told him that business services account for about 70 percent of the office workload.

The candidates are scheduled to meet for several additional forums and debates later this month.

To date, the race has attracted little attention from the media or the public. Campaign finance filings from September show Simon at the top of the fundraising field, with approximately $222,000 raised and $60,000 cash on hand. Severson reported $140,000 raised and $47,000 cash on hand.

Helland raised just $7,900 from individual donations but received approximately $25,000 in public subsidies available to him because of the IP’s status as a major party.

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