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National election integrity debate raises stakes in Minnesota secretary of state race

This year’s contest between Democratic-Farmer-Labor incumbent Steve Simon, who has held the office since 2014, and Republican-endorsed challenger Kim Crockett has seen record levels of fundraising.

Lisa Sweet (left), information specialist, and Phil Chapman, elections supervisor and deputy auditor, run sample ballots on Automark voting machines prior to the election. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com
Lisa Sweet, left, information specialist, and Phil Chapman, elections supervisor and deputy auditor, run sample ballots on Automark voting machines prior to the election. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com
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ST. PAUL — Following Republican claims of widespread fraud in the 2020 elections, and President Donald Trump’s attempt to court state officials to overturn election results, there’s been increased national focus on typically sleepy races for secretary of state, where the winner can potentially have a significant impact on how states conduct their elections.

This year’s contest between Democratic-Farmer-Labor incumbent Steve Simon, who has held the office since 2014, and Republican-endorsed challenger Kim Crockett has so far seen record levels of fundraising, with Simon holding a significant lead. At the end of May, Simon’s campaign had more than half a million dollars on hand, a level roughly four times as high as the same point in the 2018 election. Meanwhile, Crockett had more than $56,000 on hand.

Hamline University political science professor David Schultz, who teaches election law at the University of Minnesota Law School, said the new dynamics of a typically overlooked race come after years of GOP voter fraud allegations which have now escalated into outright claims of elections being stolen.

“As we're seeing across the country, as a result of the 2020 election, election administration is a hotly disputed and partisanly disputed issue ... There's a realization that election administration matters in terms of the conduct of elections,” Schultz said. “There's an enormous partisan divide over voting rights in America and it's centering on secretaries of state across the country, including in Minnesota.”

Georgia and Michigan, which were key states in President Donald Trump’s 2020 defeat, are seeing skeptics of the last presidential election’s outcome running for secretary of state. And in Minnesota, where no Republican has won a statewide election since 2006, there’s still a perception among GOP strategists that Minnesota is a swing state within their grasp, Schultz said.

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Minnesota candidates

Both major party-endorsed candidates in Minnesota say they want to boost public confidence in elections, but each advocates for a different approach. Crockett has said she aims to curb fraud by limiting the use of mail-in ballots and supports voter identification legislation, while Simon said he sees transparency and dispelling myths about 2020 as the best way to build trust.

Crockett, who previously served as vice president and general counsel for Minnesota conservative think tank the Center of the American Experiment, said she believes there is an attempt to shut down conversation about election integrity in 2020.

"If you have any questions at all about any election, if you're a Republican, suddenly you're a crazy person," she told Forum News Service in a Thursday, June 30, interview. "But the Democrats have been questioning the outcome, particularly in 2016 but other elections for years, especially following the Bush v. Gore decision in 2000 that ended up before the United States Supreme Court.”

One of Crockett's biggest criticisms of Simon is his move to change state voting regulations to expand access to absentee ballots in the 2020 election as part of a response to the pandemic. The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Simon’s decision to count absentee ballots received after Election Day in 2020 was unconstitutional, as it changed election law without legislative approval, a decision Crockett agrees with. Those changes included removing the need for a witness signature on absentee ballots. She also questions whether Minnesota should have a six-week early voting period.

Minnesota State Republican Convention
Kim Crockett speaks after being endorsed for secretary of state during the Minnesota State Republican Convention on Friday, May 13, 2022, at Mayo Civic Center in Rochester, Minnesota.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

Additionally, she says she would work to ban third-party involvement in elections, such as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's Center For Tech and Civic Life, which provided $400 million to local governments to help run the 2020 election. Critics, who call the funds "Zuckerbucks," claim the donations constitute interference. Crockett says $7 million ended up going to Minnesota local governments.

If elected, Crockett said she would back voter identification efforts in the Minnesota Legislature, cross-check voter registration lists against other databases, review ballot security for absentee ballots, and require random post-election audits.

Crockett has come under fire for what opponents described called racist and anti-Semitic messaging. A video her campaign played on a large screen at the Minnesota Republican Party endorsement convention this spring showed an image of Jewish billionaire investor and progressive donor George Soros holding puppet strings attached to Simon and Democratic elections lawyer Marc Elias, who also are Jewish.

The DFL blasted Crockett’s campaign for using well-established anti-Semitic imagery, and the video was covered in Israeli media . Minnesota Republican Party Chairman David Hann apologized and said the GOP was working with the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas to educate candidates on antisemitism.

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“As discussed with the JCRC, I have concluded after talking with Ms. Crockett that the depiction of Mr. Soros was not intended as antisemitic and that neither Ms. Crockett nor her creative team were aware that the depiction of a puppet-master invokes an old but persistent antisemitic trope,” Hann said in a statement issued following the DFL criticism.

Crockett has also been criticized for her comments about Somali immigrants in St. Cloud after a 2019 New York Times story quoted her questioning whether visible minorities could assimilate into American culture. The Center of the American Experiment placed Crockett on a 30-day suspension for the comments, which she apologized for but defended again in 2022.

Crockett dismissed the criticism as attacks by Democrats aimed at distracting from a discussion of the issues.

"It makes it hard for us to move on and have a conversation about election policy, which is what we ought to be doing," she told Forum News Service. "A good thing that's come out of all that drama is that I've been able to have just wonderful conversations with my friends, particularly in the Jewish community, but also the Muslim community and others. And those are, those are strong friendships and strong relationships and we're just all puzzled."

steve-simon.jpg
Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon

Simon was elected Minnesota secretary of state in 2014 and is seeking election to his third term this November. He takes pride in Minnesota’s status as No. 1 in the nation for voter turnout for the last three elections — nearly 80% in 2020 — and hopes if elected to another term that he can work towards boosting that number further through increasing transparency, access and confidence in the system.

“I'm excited to champion certain legislative initiatives, like automatic voter registration, like pre-registration for high school students (but) I think that not all of this is about just passing laws,” he said. “Some of it is about how we talk about voting, how we present the information and even beyond that some of it is not so much about process but about people's attitudes.”

He cast theories about 2020 fraud as outlandish, comparing them with well-known conspiracy theories popular in American culture.

"We have people in America who think that you know Elvis is still alive or that the moon landings were fake. What's different here is what the disinformation has inspired it has inspired an attack on the United States Capitol, and in my view, has inspired attacks on the freedom to vote in many state capitals," he said. "And that's what makes it so particularly dangerous. And so we can have good faith arguments about election policy, we absolutely should. But in terms of the fundamentals, we know that our election system, not just in that one election, but our election system, year after year has been fundamentally fair, accurate, honest and secure."

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Simon said both Democrats and Republicans ended up turning out in greater numbers in 2020 following changes to absentee ballots, noting that while Joe Biden comfortably won Minnesota in 2020, Republicans actually gained seats in the Legislature, kept control of the Senate and unseated 30-plus-year Democratic Congressman Collin Peterson.

Simon said he is taking steps to build trust among voters, including those who believe significant election fraud took place in 2020, by increasing transparency about how elections work, including demystifying the vote-counting process, which is highly local.

“I think the thing to get across to everyday folks is that unfortunately in this instance, they've been misled,” he said. “Sometimes for political reasons, and sometimes for economic reasons, and sometimes for both.”

Simon, who has taken his own party to the state Supreme Court on elections issues, said a big part of being secretary of state is behaving in a way that encourages public confidence in the elections process.

“The key thing in this office is for the person to be fair, and impartial. And it doesn't matter what a person's political history is, or their party affiliation. You have to leave that stuff at the door,” he said “It's not a place where anyone can wink and nod and seem to suggest putting their thumb on the scale for a particular outcome. That is disqualifying.”

Correction, July 18: The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Steve Simon’s decision to count absentee ballots received after Election Day in 2020 was unconstitutional, as it changed election law without legislative approval. Secretary of state candidate Kim Crockett said she agreed with the court’s ruling. Details of the ruling were not included in an earlier version of this story. It has been updated.

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Alex Derosier covers Minnesota breaking news and state government for Forum News Service.
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