ST. PAUL - The secretary of state's office has two main functions: elections and business records. Each candidate running for the office wants to focus on one of those aspects.
Democratic candidate and incumbent Steve Simon was in office in 2016 when Russian hackers unsuccessfully tried to get into Minnesota's Statewide Voter Registration System.
Even though Simon said there have not been any more election interference attempts as serious as the one in 2016, he still lists election security and accessibility as his top priority going into the November elections.
"Cybersecurity is a race without a finish line," he said.
Simon's challenger, former state Sen. John Howe, a Republican, acknowledged that cybersecurity is a big concern. But he said, "There is so much more to the office than just elections ... I think the secretary of state should reach out and try and enhance Minnesota's reputation for business opportunities and growth."
His experience as a business owner includes owning multiple Sears stores and Howe Properties LLC. Because of his experience, he said the business-regulatory duties of the office are his top priority.
Both offer experience
Both candidates have experience serving in the state Legislature.
Howe said he lost his state Senate seat because his opponent in 2012 was one of 13 Democrats who benefited from DFL Party spending that the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board said violated campaign finance laws.
Settlement documents from the board show the (DFL) Senate Caucus Party Unit was fined $100,000. The board took no action against the State DFL Party or individual candidates. Eleven of the 13 candidates were elected.
That experience, Howe said, greatly influenced his decision to run for secretary of state. "You shouldn't be able to cheat and keep your seat."
If elected, Howe said he would advocate for tougher campaign finance laws.
Howe served in the state Senate from 2011 to 2013 and was mayor of his hometown of Red Wing from 2008 to 2011. Howe's brother is state Rep. Jeff Howe, a Republican from Rockville.
When Simon was elected in 2014, the state ranked sixth in the nation in voter turnout. By 2016-a presidential election-Minnesota was back at No. 1, which Simon called one his "proudest achievements." The state has held the top spot for presidential elections at least since 2000.
Continuing to improve election security and boosting voter access is why Simon said he is running for another four-year term.
"A big part of the job now is election security," he said. "Five to 10 years ago that wasn't the case."
From 2004 to 2014, Simon was the state representative for District 46B, which includes his hometown of Hopkins. In his last term as a state representative, he chaired the elections committee.
Earlier this year, Simon wanted lawmakers to OK spending $1.5 million in federal funds to upgrade the state's voting software security. His request was attached to a large bill passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature, but vetoed by Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton for unrelated reasons.
Not securing that funding is an example of Simon's ineffectiveness, Howe said. "That's a failure on his part and he needs to take responsibility for that," he added.
Simon said, "It was certainly a disappointment, not a failure. This was a political decision."
Minnesota recently made improvements to its election systems based on suggestions from the Department of Homeland Security, Simon said.
He wants to continue working with Homeland Security and hire three people to modernize the state's voter registration software, which was first used in 2004. The money would come from more than $6 million in federal funds given Minnesota for election security.
Howe said he would turn to the state National Guard and Minnesota IT Services, or MNIT, for help. What it comes down to for him, Howe said, is utilizing all resources available.
"Very few people realize the state's National Guard has a cybersecurity division. Not every state has one," Howe said.
He said he would use the National Guard and MNIT to improve administrative safety on all platforms across the government, not just the secretary of state's office or elections.
Primary versus caucus
A law passed in 2017 moved Minnesota from caucuses to a primary starting with the 2020 presidential election. The bill was passed with bipartisan support.
Simon and Howe disagree on the benefits of this.
Howe said he has a problem with it because the party people vote for will be public data and that will lead to lower voter turnout, he said.
Simon said it will boost participation, estimating 640,000 people would vote in a primary, double that would participate in a caucus.
Both candidates believe there should be some sort of reform that would let more former prisoners vote.
Simon: "I do think it's time to restore the vote for those who have left prison behind. That is the trend nationwide. It just makes sense. The good news is that it has broad democratic support. There are liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans alike who support this reform, and I think we're going to get there."
Howe: "Non-violent felons that are abiding by their probation should be able to vote. I don't think it's something that can be fixed legislatively; it would take a constitutional amendment. But that does not mean that we should not advocate for it."
In addition to overseeing elections, the secretary of state's office handles the "review, approval, and filings" of Minnesota businesses and organizations.
Howe said the business aspect of the office is a "much more bigger part of the job than the elections side." He emphasized that does not mean he thinks elections are unimportant.
Legislatively, he said Minnesota should reduce the number of property tax rate classifications the state has, which he said is currently 58. He also wants to make it so businesses do not have to renew their business license with the secretary of state's office every year.
The secretary of state cannot change the property tax rate classification system or business licensing frequency on their own; it would require action by the Legislature, Simon said.
Simon says he has engaged with the business aspect by partnering with St. Cloud State University to put out regional quarterly economic reports and starting a business-insight survey called Minnesota Business Snapshot.
The economic reports allow business owners access to statewide economic information they can use when thinking about things like how or where to expand their business.
Howe is criticizing Simon for not following a court order to release data about ineligible voters. The judge's decision, which is being appealed by Simon, came from a lawsuit by the Minnesota Voters Alliance to find out how many ineligible voters voted in the 2016 general election.
"We don't know whether there is voter fraud in Minnesota because no one can analyze it, because the current secretary of state won't give out ineligible voter data," Howe said.
The decision to not release the data, Simon said, falls in line with his decision in 2017 when he denied President Donald Trump's request to turn over millions of voter records. He also said the data is not public by law, which he said three other judges agree.
In response to voter fraud, Simon said county attorneys investigate any claims or allegations made. "The last time I checked the number was 11 out of nearly 3 million voters in 2016," he said. "We have had 11 incidents of proven election misconduct."
Simon's campaign had about $221,000 cash available as of July 23, according to the most recent campaign disclosure filings with the state. Simon released his first ad Thursday, spending $100,000.
Howe had nearly $19,000, according to his campaigns most recent filings. So far he has spent between $50,000 and $100,000 on billboard and radio ads.