Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Under the radar, secretary of state race offers similar names — and big policy differences

Steve Simon
Steve Simon

Steve Simon, the DFL candidate for secretary of state, understands that many Minnesota voters might be scratching their heads when they step into voting booths across the state in November.

“There are going to be some who are saying, ‘Simon, Severson. There’s something I like about one of those guys. But which one was it?’ ”

Obscurity always has been the reality for down-ticket candidates. Yet, because of tight elections and extreme partisanship, the secretary of state has become one of the most hot-button positions in state government in recent election cycles. “This office doesn’t make headlines until it does,’’ is how Simon puts it.

And even though some voters might struggle remembering one from the other, there couldn’t be a greater contrast than between Simon and his Republican opponent, Dan Severson. Independence Party candidate Bob Helland is also running, and some believe he offers the IP’s best hope for clinging to major party status in this cycle.

But look, first, at those contrasts between Simon and Severson. Simon is proud of Minnesota’s record of clean elections. Severson believes the system is fraught with fraud, or at least the potential for fraud. Simon believes in election-day registration. Severson opposes it. Simon opposed the voter identification amendment. Severson supported it, and still would like to push for what he calls a “voluntary” voter ID system.

Start with the last contrast first. The voter ID amendment would have required all Minnesota voters to have a photo ID to vote, and was soundly rejected by Minnesotans two years ago.

Severson now proposes a “volunteer’’ photo ID concept. Voters who chose to have a photo ID could move to a separate, speedy line on election days. Others would have to wait in presumably longer, slower lines. “Everybody would still have the same opportunity to vote,’’ said Severson, “but for those who have the ID, they’d have the chance to move past half the crowd immediately.’’

Simon’s response: “I thought we ditched the idea of separate but equal 60 years ago,’’ he said. “I don’t think express lanes for certain people, while others are standing out in the cold, is a good idea.’’

Dan Severson
Dan Severson

The contrasts continue in all sorts of ways. Simon is proud of the fact that as a member of the Minnesota House of Representatives, he led the way to a law that has led to “no excuse absentee voting’’ this year. That law, Simon notes, was passed with bipartisan approval. His hopes of adding early voting to the voter selection menu in Minnesota this year did not receive GOP legislative support.

Severson sees some benefits to early absentee voting, but also sees it as an opening to voter fraud in the state.

Politically, both seem to have strengths. If recent polls are to be believed (the same polls that show Gov. Mark Dayton and Sen. Al Franken with substantial leads), Simon and other down-ticket DFLers could benefit from the top of the ticket’s coattails.

On the other hand, Severson might have slightly higher name recognition working for him, thanks to his run against current Secretary of State Mark Ritchie four years ago, when he came within three points of a victory.

Though he lost, Severson received more votes than the GOP’s gubernatorial candidate, Tom Emmer. Another advantage is that he’s preaching to a base that still believes that the GOP was robbed in the Ritchie-led recount that gave Franken a 312-vote victory over Norm Coleman in 2008.

But losing once, plus losing a U.S. Senate endorsement run against Kurt Bills — who ended up being trounced by Amy Klobuchar in 2012 — made getting into the race again this year a difficult decision for Severson. He talked with a number of other potential GOP candidates; and he and his wife, Cathy Jo, also had deep conversations about the emotional effort it takes to run in a statewide election.

“In the end, I laid it out before the Lord,’’ said Severson. “I asked, ‘What is it we’re called to do?’’’ 

The retired Navy fighter pilot — he frequently wears his flight jacket — got the go-ahead.

Bob Helland
Bob Helland

Simon’s decision to run was a little more wonky. Going back to his youth, Simon’s been intrigued by and involved in politics. Before he was even old enough to vote, Simon worked on the presidential campaign of Paul Simon (no relation) in Simon’s bid for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination. Since winning a seat in the legislature in 2004, Simon has worked on the House elections committee, which typically isn’t considered a glamorous assignment. But Simon, who was the committee chair last session, loved the job.

“Election law is the heart and soul of who we are,’’ he said.

In style, Simon likely would be considerably different from Ritchie. He’s more subdued than the intense, glad-to-see-you secretary of state. But in terms of the substance of the job, Simon would be little different. Both are believers that the system works best when it’s open to the most.

And then there’s Helland. At 29, he’s brimming with confidence, if not experience (he’s never sought office before). He seems to be focusing his campaign on the registration of businesses aspect of the secretary of state job. He does say, however, that perhaps it would be best if a third-party secretary of state would be in charge of the recounts that seem to have become almost routine in Minnesota.

It’s probably worth remembering that it’s not just recounts that can put secretaries of state in the middle of dicey political situations, though. Late in the 1990 gubernatorial campaign, the Republicans’ endorsed candidate, Jon Grunseth, was forced, by scandal, to drop from the race. Much to the chagrin of then-Gov. Rudy Perpich, Secretary of State Joan Growe, a fellow DFLer, allowed for the Republican Arne Carlson’s name to appear on the ballot. Carlson went on to defeat Perpich. 

Simon, Severson and Helland do share a common problem: Recognition and limited resources. Raising funds at a time when a governor’s race and a Senate race are sucking up most of the money and virtually all of the headlines is a hard task. It means a lot of miles on the car, a lot of trudging into smalltown newspaper offices across the state. Ultimately, Simon says he’ll be able to air one television ad before election day. Severson says he’s still working out the possibility of a TV ad. 

The three candidates have held one debate so far, Tuesday night at Minneapolis Community & Technical College, and four more lie ahead: Oct. 17, on Channel 2’s Almanac Program at 7 p.m.; Oct. 20, at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at noon; Oct. 25, at KSTP TV studios, for a debate to be aired at times to be announced; and on Oct. 28 at Augsburg College for the League of Women Voter’s debate at 7 p.m. 

Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by E Gamauf on 10/09/2014 - 10:11 am.

    I would like to ask the question — why

    Pull quote: “He does say, however, that perhaps it would be best if a third-party secretary of state would be in charge of the recounts that seem to have become almost routine in Minnesota.”

    The recounts were inconvenient, but they worked, did what they were supposed to do.
    Why would his winning the office change the recounts?

    There are rules & procedures the Secretary of State’s office adheres to. We have no reason to presume anything untoward has happened.

    We know that during Mary Kiffmeyer’s tenure, some of the voter rolls got mucked up, muddled.
    But I can’t say that I think it was deliberate. In any event, Mark Ritchie returned it to a pretty well streamlined office. He has not sought other office, so far as I am aware.

    A third party should be in charge of election counts, says Mr Helland.
    That doesn’t track. WHY is that a sensible argument?

    If we had 3 parties involved –
    it would still be someone belonging to a party running the office, correct?

    What exactly has changed?

    As for Mr Severson’s voting HOV lane – who are we kidding?
    Isn’t this something which is a lot like those curious lines down south; with some people waiting in ling for hours to vote, simply because someone decided they didn’t want African-Americans voting or access to good machines?

    • Submitted by Robert Helland on 10/09/2014 - 12:31 pm.

      And I would love to answer! Thank you for asking, Ernst.

      I also found it to be a very interesting phrasing of my stance on the issue by Mr. Grow and rather a sort of hybrid of multiple key messages. Those being:

      (1) “The office should be nonpartisan.”
      In this regard, I am saying the exact same thing both of my opponents are saying. In forums and interviews, I’ve noted that the office is an “executive branch” function and should not overstep its authority (Minnesota Constitution Article III, Section 1, “Division of Powers”) and extend itself into the policy-making authority of the “legislative branch”. My opponents, both former legislators from the two predominant major parties, have partisan support and partisan backgrounds, whereas I have a career in the executive branch of state government and critical skillsets needed to execute the constitutional and statutory role. It’s up to voters to determine whether or not this is a quality they want to see in the office and then decide who is the most independent nonpartisan in the race. I believe my candidacy shows I have no partisan obligations, including to the Independence Party.

      (2) “If ‘bipartisanship’ was supposed to be good, ‘tripartisanship’ can only be better, right?”
      I have the sense both of my opponents believe that “nonpartisan” = “bipartisan” because that is their experience in the Legislature. However, with three major parties, two minor parties, and several making a bid this year along with our true unaffiliated independents, I am trying to emphasize a political system that is balanced and informed through “tripartisanship”, a term I’ve coined which includes Republicans, Democrats and all the rest of us. (I encourage candidates of all parties and I consider candidates of all parties as a Minnesota voter. In that way I support third-parties, fourth-parties, fifth… I’m independent with respect to party.)

      (3) As for recounts, I’ve mentioned it a few times as part of my campaign but I have always in that context projected my respect and admiration for Secretary Ritchie’s dutiful handling of the process. I agree with you. My expectation is simply that the secretary of state should be both “nonpartisan” (not beholden to party interests) and “tripartisan” (inclusive of all political parties and independents) with respect to all election and non-election functions of the office. Furthermore, the role should not be a ceremonial “bully pulpit”, a phrase my opponents use but which I detest, because the executive in this office should not pretend to be a ‘super-legislator’ that can overstep its constitutional authority to achieve things in a different branch of government. There are critical functions that need executive action in the Office of Secretary of State, not political proselytizing, and in that regard I’m happy to say I am changing the debate we are having in Minnesota.

      I’m happy to answer any further questions; I believe it’s important for political candidates to be accessible (especially when constrained by resources and low name recognition) and meet voters where they are: what better place than public forums on related news stories? Thank you for commenting, Ernst.

      ~Bob Helland
      for Minnesota Secretary of State

  2. Submitted by Steve Roth on 10/09/2014 - 12:09 pm.

    The Lord works in mysterious ways.

    While not a religious person, I like to think a higher power wouldn’t want to limit participation in democracy.

  3. Submitted by Jeff Helland on 10/09/2014 - 12:31 pm.


    Thank for mentioning in passing that Bob Helland is a candidate.

    However the contrast between him and the other 2 Major Party candidates is much more than a small paragraph.

    What should have been said is that we have 2 former legislature from the Major parties, that have either or both held office during huge deficits, huge tax increases, government shutdowns, a Viking bill that took forever which is now showing signs of deficiency along with countless other blunders during there years in government.

    What should have been said is that Bob truly understand all aspects of the function by the Secretary of Sate. That he he wants to improve the role as well as the efficiency of this government office. That he has fresh ideas and the willingness to work with others to provide the best service to the people of this state regardless of a Party affiliation. With improved technology he can implement a better environment for new business and voter participation. These are the important roles of the office,

    As always the 2 Major Parties have once again re-cycled, re-used, and re-purposed the same old political insiders that has created the dysfunctional government that we have today.

    As always the media has failed to inform the people in this state of the choices that we have for a third party or independent candidate.

    We have other choices than the least worse candidate from the 2 major parties.

    We have third parties and independent people running in many races. Vote for one of them and lets end the dominance of Partisan Politics.

    Jeff Helland ( Full Disclosure, Bob’s proud dad.)

  4. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 10/09/2014 - 12:59 pm.

    I can’t believe we have a candidate…

    Ii can’t believe we have a candidate who admits he doesn’t want everyone to vote. This whole “voter fraud” red herring has gone on long enough. There are protections in place that work. Any effort to ID is just an effort to keep people from voting.

    I grew up thinking that the two major parties agreed on some basic beliefs, such as democracy is good, one person – one vote.

    • Submitted by Karen Cole on 10/09/2014 - 04:09 pm.

      I agree — There is no evidence of voter fraud

      Let’s let everyone vote. And elect a candidate who will support strong voter access. Steve Simon.

      • Submitted by RODNEY COPELAND on 10/09/2014 - 11:38 pm.

        What he says may sound good

        but it’s what he does that counts. He publicly opposed the stadium, but supported it behind the scenes and then voted for it.

        Even in politics, wouldn’t you prefer someone who lives up to what he says?

  5. Submitted by jason myron on 10/09/2014 - 01:37 pm.


    is to the right of Mary Kiffmeyer….wrap your head around that if you dare. If that doesn’t scare the hell out of you, nothing will.

    • Submitted by Gail O'Hare on 10/09/2014 - 05:47 pm.

      … the Lord’s imprimatur

      Really? Mr. Severson believes the Lord is taking an active interest in the election for MN Secretary of State? how about the other 49 states, the provinces and other political districts around the world? How about the Toronto mayoral race? If his ego and complacency extend so far as to believe he has been divinely called to run, what will he decide the Lord has called him to do if he wins office?

  6. Submitted by jason myron on 10/09/2014 - 06:53 pm.

    Great observation, Gail.

    be wary of any politician who thinks that God has told him to run for office.

  7. Submitted by Amy Wilde on 10/09/2014 - 09:15 pm.

    secretary of state candidate concerns

    My major concern about candidate Severson is not that he claims God told him to run, but that he “grandstanded” at the MN State Fair with a false claim that the current SOS was not counting soldiers’ votes. That claim is not true; any election judge will tell you that all absentee ballots (including those cast by military personnel) are run through the machines at the same time on election day. The only reason some soldiers’ votes aren’t counted is because some military personnel who are stationed out of state don’t take advantage of their right to vote absentee.
    The claim that soldiers’ submitted ballots are not counted or are “counted last” was patently false, but Severson campaigned on it over the summer, and, to my knowledge, has never apologized for misleading potential voters in this manner. Someone that out of touch with reality should not be elected to this important position.

  8. Submitted by Wes Davey on 10/10/2014 - 07:47 am.

    “In the end, I laid it out before the Lord,’’ said Severson. “I asked, ‘What is it we’re called to do?’’’

    Hmm, let’s see….maybe go to a different church?

  9. Submitted by Beth-Ann Bloom on 10/10/2014 - 09:15 am.


    I like my Secretaries of State smart which is why I support Steve Simon

  10. Submitted by Robert Helland on 10/10/2014 - 07:45 pm.

    This nonpartisan “Community Voices” piece is spot on.

    “Secretary of state forum gave a refreshing take on campaign politics and civil discourse”
    By Kyle Bozentko | 03:52 pm

    Here is another good nonpartisan report from the Jefferson Center who co-hosted the debate with Minneapolis Community & Technical College.

    Here is the full video provided by the Jefferson Center.

    Check it out!


  11. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 10/10/2014 - 08:06 pm.

    What if

    We had a Secretary of State who spent every day trying to get more people registered to vote, make them aware of their polling places, did their best to make polling places more efficient including absentee voting, and made sure that registration rolls were updated and checked regularly. Every. Day.

Leave a Reply