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State's top election official believes 'fever is breaking' on election denialism

After a wild couple of elections, Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon is optimistic about the future of democracy.

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Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon (center) spoke to a group of local League of Women Voters members and others Thursday in Detroit Lakes. He later met with election workers at the Becker County Courthouse, as part of an annual visit to all 87 counties in Minnesota.
Nathan Bowe/Tribune
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DETROIT LAKES — The last few election cycles have left Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon optimistic about the future of democracy in America.

“The fever is breaking,” he told a League of Women Voters group in Detroit Lakes on Thursday.

Simon’s office oversees elections in Minnesota, and prior to the 2020 election, he was worried, and his office was scrambling to make sure people could vote safely and securely in the middle of the first pandemic in 100 years.

“In the spring of 2020 we were fresh into this thing — we were still in lockdown mode — staring at an election we knew would be knock-down, drag-out.”

Problem No. 1 was finding 30,000 people statewide willing to serve as election judges and election workers “in pre-vaccination America, when they know there will be 1,000 people at their polling place walking in and out with their droplets — that was a challenge,” he said.

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He was also concerned about possible civil unrest at polling places, and that people might be afraid to go out to the polls to vote.

“My office is in the democracy business, and the last three or four years it’s been a hell of a time to be in the democracy business,” he said, crediting the League of Women Voters with doing great work on voter education and registration.

“The last three or four years people have been saying the work you do is essential — democracy is really on the dashboard, with blinking red lights — not just in Minnesota, but across the country,” he said.

Fortunately, in 2020 the election judges materialized, unrest didn’t happen, and Minnesotans ended up voting in droves that year — but mostly not in person.

“We had the highest voter turnout since 1956, just shy of 80%,” Simon said. “It was extraordinary, absolutely extraordinary — in a pandemic.”

Not surprisingly, the percentage of absentee voters shot up that year to 58% of all votes cast, he said. That way, he said, “you don’t have to risk your life to vote.”

By comparison, in 2018, 24% of votes were cast by absentee ballot. In last month’s general election, same story — 26% of votes came through absentee ballots.

That’s because “we are no longer in the worst throes of a pandemic with no vaccine,” he said.

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But the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election was also “very troubling,” he added. “We were hit with a wave of disinformation about our elections, and that will continue to 2024.”

He never mentioned former president Donald Trump by name, but it’s no secret that Trump has led the charge on election denialism.

“Disinformation doesn’t mean disagreeing with me on election policy. I have no problem with that,” Simon said. “I mean willful distortions — lies — about what the system is and how it works, in a calculated and politically-motivated way.”

The violent Jan. 6 take-over of the U.S. Capitol while Congress was in session to certify the victory of Joe Biden “is only the most glaring example of weaponizing that disinformation,” he said.

Many of the participants that day believed Trump’s loud and repeated claims about massive voter fraud that cost him the election. That in spite of findings by 60-some judges, including some appointed by Trump, that there was no evidence of such fraud.

But election deniers on the right continue to spread falsehoods and have weaponized words like “rigged, stolen, fraud,” to the point that they have successfully undermined many people’s confidence in free and fair elections, said Simon.

The “controversy” over ballot counting in Pennsylvania is a good example of how it works, Simon said.

In Minnesota, the Secretary of State’s Office never touches or counts ballots, which are all processed at the local level. But by law, those local election workers can start counting absentee ballots a week before election day.

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In 2020 the Legislature changed the law to allow a two-week head start on counting absentee ballots. So the Minnesota results were counted and known on election night or the next day.

But in states like Pennsylvania, the legislature refused to allow election workers any kind of head start, and in fact, they had to wait until the polls closed on election day to start counting those mountains of absentee ballots, Simon said.

“The Pennsylvania legislature said ‘no extra time,’ with predictable results,” Simon said. In the big cities, especially, they were counting those piles of absentee ballots for weeks after election day.

“To this day, national political figures talk about that ‘mysterious’ dump of ballets in big cities in Pennsylvania,” Simon said, “It was not a ‘dump,’ it was a count, but to this day that is mischaracterized on social media and by national political figures as a ‘dump,’ and of evidence of ‘rigging, fixing or stealing’ an election. That is misinformation.”

Before the election this year, “we were worried that some voters would be turned off,” Simon added. He runs on the DFL ticket, but considers his office nonpartisan. “I don’t want any Minnesotan to not vote because of misinformation about the election system,” he said.

He makes a distinction between the political and media figures actively promoting misinformation and the regular people who might happen to believe it.

“It’s important to lead with the truth whenever we see misinformation or disinformation,” he said. “The 2020 election was fair, honest and accurate.”

Transparency is the best tool in the battle against disinformation, he added. “The more people understand how our election process actually works, the more they trust the system,” he said. For instance, he said, “Every piece of election equipment has to be checked before every election, and every county does a post-election audit, followed by a deeper look by the Secretary of State's Office. When people learn these things, they come away with a lot of confidence in the system … I am a long-term optimist — the fever will break because we make it break.”

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