Low-key race heats up at the U

Minnesota’s secretary of state race is one of few in the area without an incumbent running.

by Kevin Karner

Four candidates vying to be the next Minnesota secretary of state squared off at a debate held on the University of Minnesota campus Monday.

The race to become the official who oversees election law and some business services across Minnesota has proven to be the sleeper election of this season, experts say, but candidates’ campaigns are picking up steam as Election Day nears.

Monday’s debate, held at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, spanned questions regarding military voter participation, voter ID, absentee voting policies, expanding ranked-choice voting and how active the office should be in partisan politics.

While the debate was never combative, it highlighted differences between the candidates.

With no publicly released opinion polling or an incumbent to tip the scales, the election has so far gone under some students’ radars.

“It’s weird that it’s a separate election and not just appointed by [Gov. Mark] Dayton,” said political science senior Mitchell Ness.

Ness said he thought secretary of state was an appointed position until viewing a recent television ad.

“Secretary of state doesn’t always capture the public imagination, but people in the elections and political field realize it’s an important job,” said Doug Chapin, debate moderator and director of the Humphrey School’s Elections Academy, where the debate was held. “I wouldn’t doubt it gets more attention as Election Day gets closer.”

Aside from widely divergent opinions on the use of voter ID, all candidates at Monday’s debate seemed willing to make investments in the election process.

Third-party candidates Bob Helland and Bob Odden, endorsed by the Independence Party and the Libertarian Party, respectively, shifted between jabs at the dominant two-party system.

“Throughout the last eight months, the media narrative has been that [third-party candidates] are no-names, but the Independence, Green, Libertarian parties — we’ve put up a huge effort,” Helland said, noting that at age 29, he would bring a younger perspective to state government.

State Rep. Steve Simon, DFL-Hopkins, who is one of the candidates, touted election reforms he’s authored — like a recent no-excuse absentee voting law — as well as the importance of a politically moderate secretary of state.

“Do we want an honest broker or someone who is a partisan warrior on an ideological crusade with an axe to grind?” Simon said in his closing remarks.

GOP nominee Dan Severson is on his second attempt for the office after coming in a few points short of current Secretary of State Mark Ritchie in 2010.

Severson highlighted a recurring theme of his campaign: election integrity.

“We have to secure our ballot box,” Severson said, adding that he would support optional voter IDs and major reforms of the vouching system.

Having overseen several close recounts in two of the last three primary elections, the Minnesota secretary of state’s office has been a focus of attention, particularly during the 2008 Franken-Coleman recount for U.S. Senate in which Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., ultimately won by only 312 votes.

Simon stressed the importance of making it easier to vote.

“No matter what our No. 1 issue might be as a society … all roads lead to the ballot box,” he said. “Unless we have open elections, we won’t get far in any of those areas.”

The candidates will debate again next Tuesday at Augsburg College.