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Big turnout in November? Simon strives to improve voting process

Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, right, with State Sen. Kent Eken, in Detroit Lakes recently. DETROIT LAKES TRIBUNE/Nathan Bowe

Look for a big turnout for the Nov. 8 general election, Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon said in Detroit Lakes Wednesday.

He doesn’t subscribe to the theory that unpopular presidential candidates with the two major parties will tamp down turnout among voters, who might be tempted to say “a pox on both their houses.”

For one thing, it’s an open-seat presidential election year, and those events tend to draw a big turnout.

“We also have two major party nominees who inspire strong feelings, so we’re probably going to see even more turnout than we would on a regular open-seat presidential year,” he said at a public forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Detroit Lakes Area and held at Emmanuel nursing home in Detroit Lakes.

“I’m predicting high turnout, not depressed turnout,” Simon said.

Minnesota is known for its civic-minded voters, he said. For nine elections in a row, Minnesota had the best voter turnout in the nation, but in the election of 2014, “we fell to No. 6,” he said. “My goal this year is to help get us back to No. 1 – but my office can’t do it on our own, we have to reach out to all kinds of organizations.”

Legislative action is also needed for the state to get back to No. 1.

“We have to make sure we pass and maintain laws that encourage voting and participation,” he said.

For example, Minnesota is one of only 11 states that allow same-day registration, allowing people to register and vote at the same time.

That needs to be preserved, and overly-strict voter identification laws must continue to be rejected, he said.

Minnesotans can register online and request an absentee ballot, among other things, at MNvotes.org.

On the site, you can learn how to vote early by absentee ballot, vote from the military, or abroad, and how to vote in a mail ballot precinct.

On the plus side, Minnesota now has no-excuses absentee voting, he said.

“Under the old law, if you wanted to vote absentee you had to sign an oath that you were either really sick or would be gone that day,” Simon said. “It’s great to have that gone – there was a lot of white lying going on anyway.”

One area of concern is the low turnout among Minnesotans ages 18-22.

“We’re lagging behind with our youngest voters,” he said. “Eighty percent of them did not vote in 2014.”

Voting young tends to lead to a lifelong voting habit, so Simon’s office is aiming to inspire young people by getting them in the voting habit while they are still in high school.

“We’re having the first-ever statewide mock election for high school students,” he said. “This connects them all together, so kids in Detroit Lakes can see how kids in Bemidji or Forest Lake are voting.”

Simon’s office provides the mock ballots and the “I voted” stickers, and will promote the results on its website. “We think it’s going to be a great experience,” he said.

He also embraced a suggestion from the audience that parents bring their kids into the voting booth to get a feel for what it’s like.

“It’s all under the category of getting good habits started early.” He said. “Those who start early are far more likely to make it a lifelong habit.”

Reaching out to new Minnesotans is also one of Simon’s initiatives.

“We are upping the number of foreign languages we serve on voting materials from five to 10, doubling them,” he said.

It’s a practice that can be traced back more than 100 years in Minnesota, when ballot instructions were available in German, Finnish, Norwegian and other common immigrant languages.

His mother immigrated from Austria, he said, and could read and speak English, but was more comfortable with technical printed instructions if she could read them in German.

“I know from first-hand experience, it really matters,” he said. “If you want people to get it right and not make mistakes,” they need to be able to read it in their native language.”

Imagine if you moved to another country and were trying to read ballot instructions in another language, he said. Even if you knew the language, you’d appreciate being able to read instructions in English.

“My passion is to make it as easy as possible to vote,” he said.

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