Former Red Wing mayor John Howe challenges incumbent Steve Simon for Minnesota Secretary of State job

October 23, 2018

Minnesota’s chief elections officer faces an evolving job description.

Whoever wins next month’s race for Secretary of State will oversee an increasingly complicated system — from combating Russian hackers to big increases in the number of early voters. That’s why incumbent Steve Simon, a Democrat, wants the job for four more years and why Republican John Howe is challenging him.

“We have some work to do,” Simon said, adding about cybersecurity: “Unlike four years ago, these issues are front and center.”

Simon, a former state representative and an attorney from Hopkins, took office in 2015 after working on election issues in the Legislature. Howe, a former Red Wing mayor and former state senator, said he’d tap his business background running a chain of Sears stores and rental properties to bring more attention to the office’s duties tracking business filings.

“I have a very, very tough race,” Howe said, noting that he’s been outspent by his more well-known opponent. “But I don’t believe the race is about money. It’s about having fair and honest and open elections.”

Howe said he won’t use the office for partisan politics, citing Simon’s refusal to turn over voter information to a panel President Donald Trump assembled to study alleged voter fraud. Trump later dissolved the commission after it faced federal lawsuits.

“It was absurd and it was political,” Simon said, adding that he refused to turn over private information such as Social Security numbers. “Voters expect privacy.”

William Denney is also on the ballot for the Independence Party.

Compared to other campaigns, the Secretary of State race never attracts a slew of money or barrage of TV ads (Simon has run one TV ad). That’s especially true this year, with a ballot stacked with the governor’s race, fiercely competitive congressional races and control of the Legislature up for grabs.

But the Secretary of State’s office holds important responsibilities and often makes headlines. It was at the forefront of the state’s 2008 and 2010 statewide recounts, its fight over two 2012 constitutional amendments and most recently, preparing for possible cyberattacks. With 91 employees, it’s the smallest of the statewide elected offices. Beyond running the state’s elections system, staff members license businesses and nonprofit organizations and run “Safe at Home,” a program that helps people who fear for their safety keep a confidential address.

Democrats have held the Secretary of State post since the 2006 election.

“I like to say I’m in the democracy business and what a time to be in the democracy business,” Simon told a Minneapolis high school audience earlier this month. “My mission is to make it as easy as possible.”

The son of an Austrian immigrant, Simon, 48, of Hopkins worked as an attorney before getting elected to the Legislature in 2004, where he served for five terms. He carried the bill to switch Minnesota’s primary election from September to August to accommodate state voters living abroad. And he was chief sponsor of the bill that created Minnesota’s “no excuses” absentee voting system, which has been touted by both parties — contributing to a surge in early voting this year. His father, who has Parkinson’s disease, was part of Simon’s motivation for early voting, increasing accessibility for people with disabilities.

“That’s a sea change in Minnesota voting,” Simon said. “People like to vote on their own timetable.”

Simon also touts that Minnesota regained first place for voter turnout in the country in 2016 after slipping to sixth place in the 2014 midterms. He said he’s worked in a nonpartisan way, noting that his own party unsuccessfully sued him and fought in the Supreme Court to keep Trump off the ballot in 2016.

In 2016, Russian hackers attempted to breach 21 states’ election systems. Minnesota was among those targeted, but it was unsuccessful.

If re-elected, Simon said he’d support automated voter registration and expanding eligibility to people with felonies once they leave prison; right now, anyone who is serving a felony conviction sentence, including probation and parole, can’t vote. He also supports allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to preregister to vote (they have to be 17½ now).

“When you turn 18, you get formal political power,” Simon said, handing out voter registration forms to high school students this month. “Stand up, step up and be a voter.”

On a sunny September day, Howe parked his white truck emblazed with a red and white “vote for Howe” sign and slogan, “integrity counts.”

Just four days earlier, he was hospitalized in an unusual parade float crash. But he was immediately back on the campaign trail. Inside a St. Paul charter school, Howe spoke to a class of nine juniors, explaining he was running against the current Secretary of State.

“You’re trying to kick him out?” a boy asked.

“Exactly,” Howe said, to the laughs of the students, adding: “if I’m elected, if you cheat on your election, you’re not going to be able to keep your seat.”

Howe, 55, said he would expand eligibility by pushing for a bill to allow people with nonviolent felonies to cast votes. He also said he’d recruit businesses to relocate to Minnesota. “The business side doesn’t get a lot of recognition,” he said.

In the state Senate, Howe said he was known as the “yellow flashing arrow guy,” for authoring a bill on traffic signals. Now, the former St. Cloud prison guard manages rental properties and gives motivational speeches to incarcerated youth.

Like Simon’s Republican challenger in 2014, Howe is also pitching to voters about how he would combat election fraud, saying too many ineligible votes are cast on Election Day. He’s said he has the support of the Minnesota Voters Alliance, which took Simon to court over not providing full voter information, asserting that thousands of voters may have voted ineligibly in 2016. While the group describes itself online as nonpartisan, its claims of widespread fraudulent voting align with similar assertions by Republicans.

Simon dismisses that assertion, saying that, out of 3 million ballots cast in 2016, 11 were fraudulent ballots. “That’s near perfection,” he said.

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141