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Secretary of State Steve Simon on Disinformation in the 2022 Elections and Advice To Media

"Ask tough questions. Apply scrutiny. Make people answer and make sure their assertions aren't taken at face value." 4/12/22 MN Secretary of State Steve Simon

We are looking ahead at Elections 2022, planning how we cover all the MN Legislative and Executive races as well as Congressional seats and local government.

It's our goal to provide trusted coverage of how elections work, disinformation and information about candidates. We believe we have a role in strengthening democracy in rural northern Minnesota.

Today we talked to MN Secretary of State Steve Simon. The following interview/transcript was edited for clarity.

Heidi: Why are you running for reelection to Secretary of State, especially in light of the current political climate?

Secretary Simon: What we have all built together in Minnesota across party lines, across county lines, across all sorts of lines, is something really, truly special.

For the third time in a row in the 2020 election, we were number one in the country in voter turnout. We did that.

We did that despite being in a once in a century pandemic. Turnout was up everywhere: in red areas in blue areas. Sometimes it helped one party. Sometimes it helped the other. So I think making sure that we maintain the best part of the system that has gotten us to this place is a key part of why I'm running.

And I'm really focusing on three things, defending democracy, expanding the freedom to vote and pushing back against the most dangerous disinformation about our system. We have a lot to be proud of.

Heidi: It's interesting, I'm in training right now for journalists on how to cover the 2022 elections. Since I work in public media we have a goal of a strong democracy. We as media though, are confused abou HOW to cover the elections this year, because things are different than they used to be. Do you have any advice for journalists?

Secretary Simon: Well, I would never try to tell anyone you or any of your colleagues, how to do your job.

What I would say is - I empathize with some of the problem here. If it's it's easy to lapse into both sides is and to treat equally and give equal time to people who have opposing points of view, but one is less supported by facts and evidence than the other.

That's, that's a tough thing. I would say to anyone in the media and by the way, even those who come at it from a particular position on the left or the right or whatever is:

Ask tough questions, apply scrutiny, make people answer and make sure that there are follow up questions that their assertions aren't just taken at face value.

Heidi: The last time we talked it was about voting in and the 2020 elections and a recent call for a"full forensic audit" in Brainerd. We learned that this was a national push being played out locally. Looking back at the first time you ran for Secretary of State, is this a totally different political climate now?

Secretary Simon: Yes, I'd say two big changes since I first ran for this office. One is not directly related to has to do with what happened in the 2016 election.

So I ran for this office in 2014 and I think you can divide the running of elections into two halves pre- 2016 and post 2016, because 2016 was the year when we know that a foreign government tried to interfere with the mechanics of our election.

They were totally unsuccessful, no votes were changed or transferred or anything like that. But we were on notice from then forward that we had to be on top of cybersecurity. We didn't want any adversary or anyone domestically for that matter to mess with the gears of democracy, I'm talking about machines or the databases or voter registration records or things like that. So that's one big change.

The other big change is the one that you've been focused on in our talk here: disinformation. The idea that the system itself is being called into question.

I want to be clear for your listeners, what I'm not talking about when I'm talking about disinformation, I'm not talking about people who disagree on elections policy. There are plenty of good, honest, patriotic, smart people who just have a different view than I do about elections policy: what laws should we add? What laws should we subtract? That kind of thing.

That's not disinformation. That's democracy to have a back and forth and may the best ideas prevail. What I mean when I talk about disinformation isn't disagreement on election policy or outcomes or things like that, it's information that seems designed and coordinated to to attack or reduce confidence in our election system as a whole.

It's particularly bad when people start slinging around things that aren't true, just plain are not true. And so the optimistic part of this from my standpoint is when people come to get to know the election system, the way it really is the way it really operates and not the way it's been too often, falsely portrayed in the media or on social media or whatever, they come away with a ton of confidence.

Here in Minnesota, I can cite you so many examples of people who once they come to understand features of our system, the way it exists right now, they come away saying I had no idea that those things exist or that process existed or this kind of thing is an opportunity.

So they come away saying, wow, I never knew there were these checks and balances. And so that's the good news. And that to me is says that that I and others in the, in the elections business have to be, do an even better job of making sure folks know the rules of the road, the true rules of the road, not imaginary and sometimes you know, political statements designed to undermine the system.

Heidi: I recently I learned a lot from a PBS frontline documentary called"The Plot to Overturn the Election" . And it was pretty staggering: the analysis of how coordinated this effort was to get people to lose faith in our election system. Let's lay out the basics here. First, elections are done locally.

Secretary Simon: Thank you for that. That's a great example. So some people think mistakenly that our office, that the office of Secretary of State, that we're the ones who count votes.

We never lay a finger on any ballot ever. All the vote counting in the state of Minnesota happens at the local level in counties, in cities, in townships, all across the Minnesota,

Minnesota is totally decentralized. We never touch a ballot in our office. All we do is report the numbers that count these cities and townships report into our election night reporting system. And of course, all of those are checked and screened and filtered and, and all the rest. So that's a great example of disinformation : people who knowingly spread the idea that our office is counting votes. When we don't.

Heidi: Are you concerned about having enough people on the local level involved - election judges?

Secretary Simon: We need 30,000 people. 30,000 people to step up and be election judges.

Despite the title an election judge is not someone who wears a black robe and has a gavel in their hand, an election judge is just the name we use in Minnesota to describe the people who staff the polling place. There's mandatory training.

There has to be political party division for certain functions, so that it's equal. And we need 30,000 of those folks. And it was hard enough during COVID to get those 30,000. We did through a ton of effort pulling in the same direction and thinking creatively about how to get new folks into the system. But what we don't want to have happen is that elections become undermined and confidence in the system is so undermined that it leads to a toxic climate where people don't want to do the job anymore.

It's not been a problem in Minnesota. We've always managed to get to 30,000 that we need, we welcome folks.And again, the people who are staffing the elections, they're your friends, they're your neighbors, they're the people, you know that you see in the grocery store or you see on the street.

So we want to keep that system in Minnesota. That's totally decentralized. And it's made up of folks you know in the community who are doing that important work.

Heidi: How do people sign up to be an election judge?

Secretary Simon: First of all it is not a volunteer position. A lot of people might mistakenly believe that - but is very much a paid gig. There's mandatory, two hours of training. Most folks allow you to do that online.

You can start doing it from the age of 16, so high school kids can do it. They can get extra credit. It's a great student leadership opportunity. And if you were 18 and above, there's no geographic restrictions. It's a great opportunity to get a glimpse of democracy, close up, to see all the systems in place and come away with that great confidence that is very well earned in our state.

Heidi: You said I should ask the hard questions. Was there any fraud in the 2020 elections in the State of Minnesota?

Secretary Simon: In Minnesota traditionally and in 2020, there is a minuscule amount of what could be called fraud misconduct, unlawful behavior as to both voting and registration.

It's typically a couple of dozen or so out of a state of 5.7 million people, 3.3 million voters. A court, a federal court, once did the math going back over, I wanna say three decades, something like that.

And the rate of misconduct was something like seven, 10000th of 1%. Now, if I told any of your listeners Hey, you know, the, your rate of error in whatever you choose to do a job, a hobby, a business, a sport is gonna be seven, 10 thousands of 1%. You would say, wow, sign me up. That's close to perfection.

In Minnesota over the years, no matter who's in charge, what party who the individuals are we've got a system that you can really take to the bank. That is a system that ensures integrity, honesty, accuracy, and security. No system is perfect and ours isn't either, but really, there's a reason why we're so envied by the rest of the country and a reason why we're number one now in turnout for the third time in a row.

Heidi: As our seated Secretary of State for Minnesota, are the there warning signs, are there proposed laws either in our state or around the country that concern you about changes to the election system?

Secretary Simon: I'm really concerned about that. I'm concerned that some folks both in Minnesota and in other states are kind of leveraging or using this disinformation particularly about 2020 as a way to get laws passed that I think takes us backwards and makes voting harder for eligible people, eligible people like me and you and our friends and our neighbors when you don't need to do that.

It comes in different flavors and varieties around the country. We've seen what's happened in states like Florida and Texas and other unnecessary kinds of restrictions in Minnesota. There are proposals that I just strongly disagree with that would, in my view, take us backwards, take us in a bad direction. For example, and I won't get in all the technical piece, but there's some folks at the Minnesota Legislature pushing a proposal that wouldempower challengers at the polling place.

If a challenger accused a voter of being ineligible, then the burden is on the voter, the accused person, not to prove that he or she is innocent, not the other way around. And they would then have to take a day or a half day off of work, go to their county auditor in the days, following the election and sort of provide a bunch of proof to justify or to answer a challenge made in the polling place.

That just gives a ton of power to people who might have an incentive to knock people off of the voting rolls. I think it's a bad idea. I think it's not gonna happen, but that's an example of something that's just not needed. It's not necessary in Minnesota. We have a record, a proven record of security and valid integrity.

Heidi: Remind us where we are at in the election season.

Secretary Simon: So working backwards, the general election this year is on November 8th and the primary election is on August 14th. And in each of those elections, there are, is a 46 day absentee ballot period.

So starting in late September you can vote in the general election either by going in person to a government office, typically a city hall or county courthouse, or you can order the ballot to come to you at home, which record numbers of people did in Minnesota in 2020. And the place to do that, by the way way for either did the general election in November or the August primary election is you can go to our website, which is MN That's MN you can do as a large majority did in the 2020 election in Minnesota, which is just say, Hey, I wanna vote for my kitchen table.

I don't want to bury your listeners with, with, with statistics, but this one pops out. So in 2018, 2 elections ago in 2018, about a quarter 24% to be exact in Minnesota, voted absentee chose to vote either sometime before the election in person or ordered the ballot to come to them at home 24%.

But probably because of COVID in 2020, that more than doubled to 58%, just think about that. That means only 42% of voters chose, and it's all choice chose to vote the old fashioned way in a polling place. On election day.

Now I don't expect that 58% number to be that high this time. A ot of that was COVID. But I also don't expect us to go back to 24%. I think it'll shake out somewhere in the thirties if I had to guess just to guess. But it does tell us that people like these new ways of voting. I think that's people telling us something about how they wanna have their voice heard.

This transcript was edited for clarity.

Hear the full conversation at the listen button above.

Read more on MinnPost.

Copyright 2022 KAXE

Heidi Holtan is KAXE's Director of Content and Public Affairs where she manages producers and is the local host of Morning Edition from NPR. Heidi is a regional correspondent for WDSE/WRPT's Duluth Public Television’s Almanac North.