WILLMAR, Minn. — For three years running, Minnesota has led the nation in voter turnout, with 79.6% of eligible voters casting ballots in the last general election.

That still leaves one in five eligible voters not exercising their right to have a say in our democracy.

That figure explains why Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon and Simone Frierson, voter outreach director for the office, gathered Wednesday morning, Nov. 17, at the Midtown Plaza in Willmar, Minnesota, with representatives from a variety of organizations. They came looking both to build partnerships to promote voter turnout as well as learn the challenges that must be met.

“It shows us that the state really cares about Willmar,” said Abdirizak "Zack" Mahboub, co-owner of the Midtown Plaza and a Somali interpreter. He pointed out one of the challenges that keep many from voting: Not every new citizen is able to read or write in English, even when they can speak the language.

Abdirizak "Zack" Mahboub, co-owner of the Midtown Plaza and a Somali interpreter, pointed out to Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon that Willmar is home to a diverse population with many new citizens. More than 3,000 of its residents are of East African heritage, and more than 5,000 are of Latin heritage, he explained.  He was among local leaders of organizations who met with the Secretary of State on Nov. 17, 2021.  Tom Cherveny / West Central Tribune
Abdirizak "Zack" Mahboub, co-owner of the Midtown Plaza and a Somali interpreter, pointed out to Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon that Willmar is home to a diverse population with many new citizens. More than 3,000 of its residents are of East African heritage, and more than 5,000 are of Latin heritage, he explained. He was among local leaders of organizations who met with the Secretary of State on Nov. 17, 2021. Tom Cherveny / West Central Tribune

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Voter turnout is believed to be at a lower rate among new Americans as compared to the general population, and Simon and Frierson agreed the challenge of a new language is believed to be a big factor.

In Willmar, Mahboub said, nearly one-half of the population is from minority communities. He pointed out that Willmar is home to more than 3,000 people of East African heritage, and more than 5,000 people of Latin heritage.

The secretary of state website can now be viewed in 12 different languages, up from five. Frierson said they are also looking to address an issue the Kandiyohi County Auditor’s Office knows well: Absentee ballots returned for not being completed correctly. It’s suspected that it is difficult for some non-native speakers to follow written instructions available only in English.

Simon pointed out that his mother, a native of Austria, was a fluent speaker of English, but when it came to technical matters, she performed best when instructions were in her native language. Frierson said they are looking at options to provide instructions in voters’ native languages as well.

Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, right, and Simone Frierson, left, director of voter outreach, met Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021, with representatives of nonprofit and governmental organizations and businesses in Willmar to discuss ways to boost voter turnout. Simon and Frierson said they are looking to build partnerships with local organizations that can work toward promoting greater voter participation.  Tom Cherveny / West Central Tribune
Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, right, and Simone Frierson, left, director of voter outreach, met Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021, with representatives of nonprofit and governmental organizations and businesses in Willmar to discuss ways to boost voter turnout. Simon and Frierson said they are looking to build partnerships with local organizations that can work toward promoting greater voter participation. Tom Cherveny / West Central Tribune

Minnesota has been printing voting materials in non-English languages since 1896, when Swedish, Norwegian, German and Bohemian languages were common. Today, the Secretary of State also provides written materials in Somali, Spanish and Karen.

“This is not some new thing we’re doing for this wave of immigrants that we haven’t done in the past,” Simon said.

Many voters and would-be voters rely on spoken rather than written word, participants at the meeting pointed out. Michelle Marotzke, with the Mid-Minnesota Development Commission, said the agency and Ridgewater College are working on a curriculum aimed at teaching communication skills for those who would be willing to provide information on voting to non-English audiences in the community.

It’s more than language keeping some new citizens from the polls, others noted. Many come from countries where they did not have the right to vote, or where they had reason to doubt the legitimacy of elections.

Many also addressed the challenge of getting more young people to the polls. Eric Day, director of the Mid-Minnesota Development Commission, said he believes civic instruction in high school would benefit participation. Simon said he has endorsed legislation by State Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, with that goal.

Simon said he credits Minnesota’s high voter turnout to what he termed good, bipartisan legislation as well as a community-minded culture. He cited same-day registration, enacted in 1974, and the more recent, no-excuse absentee voting law, as examples of laws that benefit turnout. In the last election, 58% of Minnesotans voted absentee, he said.

Despite the COVID-19 epidemic and other challenges, Minnesota successfully recruited 30,000 election judges to conduct the 2020 election.

Across the country, there has been growing concern about intimidation against election judges and those who administer elections. Simon said potential intimidation of election judges concerns him, and he’s not alone. The FBI and Justice Department have set up a task force on the issue, he said.

Dealing with all the misinformation that is being placed out there is also a challenge. It’s impossible to play whack-a-mole and try to respond to all of it as it arises, according to Simon. He said his office works with local election officials to get the word out: Minnesota has election audits, post-election reviews and random sampling of ballot certification as part of its election process. It has mandatory accuracy testing of voting equipment prior to each election.

He said it also is the responsibility of elected officials such as himself to speak out about the mistruths and explain what the truth is in the state.