It would be the hottest ticket in St. Paul, if you had to buy tickets for legislative committee hearings held via teleconferencing: the Senate Government Finance and Policy and Elections Committee whenever Secretary of State Steve Simon appears before Committee Chair Mary Kiffmeyer.
The two have never been close. Kiffmeyer, a Republican from Big Lake, used to have Simon’s job, serving two terms before she was defeated by DFLer Mark Ritchie in 2006. After Ritchie chose not to run in 2014, fellow DFLer Simon took up the job. Both Ritchie and Simon battled with Kiffmeyer over election administration, especially on the issues of Voter ID and provisional ballots.
But what had been a tense-but-civil relationship has become one of open antagonism — for the same reason much of state and national politics has: the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.
‘A shame that will never, ever wash off’
The result of the 2020 election has been confirmed by count and recount; court ruling and electoral college election. And yet, even after claims of a stolen election led to the storming of the U.S. Capitol, there remain Republicans who either refuse to acknowledge the result or do so with qualifiers.
Simon and Kiffmeyer have personified that conflict in Minnesota. Kiffmeyer has said she thinks all questions that are raised about the election are legitimate — and that Simon should answer them. Simon has said that continued questioning of the election results — and the introduction of legislation on election security — is simply meant to further former-President Trump’s unfounded allegations of election fraud.
Kiffmeyer is not the only Republican who has problems with Simon. GOP lawmakers continue to be critical of the secretary of state for what they say was cooperation with a League of Women Voters suit that negated a law requiring voters using mail-in ballots in 2020 to have someone verify their identity and confirm they filled out their ballot themselves. Yet even amid those disagreements, Simon has previously been able to reach deals with legislative Republicans on some issues, including the release of federal election security dollars under the Help America Vote Act; the rules around the presidential primary; and changes to election law to respond to the pandemic.
That tense cooperation stopped after the 2020 election.
In a lengthy letter dated Dec. 1 [PDF], Simon responded to a series of election-related queries from Kiffmeyer by saying he disagreed with the premise of the questions, including those about Dominion Voting Systems, the company featured prominently in Republican claims of a stolen election. Those allegations have been disproven in numerous court challenges, and Dominion has filed — or threatened to file — defamation lawsuits against Trump lawyers and supporters, including former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Minnesota-based founder of MyPillow, Mike Lindell.
Simon wrote that “some people (including elected officials) have chosen to wield conspiracy theories and misinformation in an attempt to undermine public confidence in our election system. … Those attempts are dangerous for our democracy. I hope you’ll join me in loudly and publicly identifying and debunking such corrosive fantasies.”
He also called the since-disproven allegations of a tainted election “foolish and irresponsible.”
“While I fundamentally disagree with the premise of some of the questions in your letter, I am happy to answer them as best I can to help stop the rampant spread of misinformation and disinformation related to the 2020 General Election,” Simon wrote.
Simon didn’t let up when he met with Kiffmeyer’s committee on Dec. 8. He told the panel that anyone who trades in the allegations of voter fraud and stolen elections “is coating themselves in a shame that will never, ever wash off. Ever.”
Kiffmeyer was not dissuaded. She said her questions had been asked by residents of the state and she has a responsibility to pursue answers. But, she said, those questions have “been met with accusations and disrespect, which is very disappointing.”
While threats against election officials are wrong, she said, she disagreed with Simon’s assertion that “when we ask questions about our election system, that somehow in and of itself is some sort of shameful activity. I will also reject that.”
‘The citizens of Minnesota … have an absolute right to ask questions’
Time has done little to ease the conflict. Last week, during his first appearance before Kiffmeyer’s committee of the new legislative session, the two picked up where they’d left off.
Simon expanded his critique of election-related questions to the bills introduced this session that have sprung from Republicans’ belief that Minnesota’s elections are not secure, or at least on the notion that some residents don’t think they’re secure — including a GOP bill to require photo identification at the polls, something rejected by Minnesota voters in 2012, 54 percent to 46 percent.
Simon said he had testified against a similar bill 11 months ago and called his opposition to the measure then an honest disagreement between himself and sponsor Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson. But since the 2020 election, the bill “feels a lot different now than it did,” he said, thanks to what he said was a tidal wave of disinformation.
“These are lies designed to manipulate and mislead people,” Simon said of Republicans’ rationale for proposing a voter ID bill, which is based on the idea that Minnesota elections are insecure and unfair, an assertion that was central to Trump’s effort to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
“Here is the truth: The truth is that the 2020 election was fundamentally fair, honest, accurate and secure,” said Simon. “Period.”
Minnesota’s highest turnout in the nation suggests “that people know in their bones that it is fundamentally fair and fundamentally honest,” he said. “Otherwise they wouldn’t participate.
“This bill would do nothing to increase our already high level of confidence,” Simon continued. “What would do that would be for all of us to tell the truth about the election and the election system.”
Simon reminded the committee that when he testified before them on Dec. 8 — a month before a mob stormed the U.S. Capitol, an event that left five people dead — he told them then that he was concerned that the campaign against the election results could lead to someone being injured or even killed. “I have never been more sorry to be right,” he said.
Simon’s objections to voter ID go beyond his assertion that it attempts to reduce confidence in elections. He said it would keep many people — from recent citizens who might lack all of the required documents to senior citizens who have moved into nursing homes and no longer have a driver’s license that match their new address — from voting.
But it was the broader issue that was the focus of his testimony and that angered Kiffmeyer. “When I hear words in my committee accusing other people of lies, dangers and other things like that repetitively, it’s a great disservice and a great disrespect to the citizens of Minnesota who have an absolute right to ask questions,” she said. “To try to chill them or keep them from using that by these accusatory types of statements for the second time in this committee is not respectful and will not be accepted as the tone of this committee.”
They then argued over whether Simon was required to answer another senator’s question about voter fraud with a yes or no answer.
“Senator,” Simon told Kiffmeyer, “you’re not the question cop.”
“Calling me, the chair of the committee, a question cop? Really?” Kiffmeyer said.
Moving in opposite directions
What effect will the soured relationship between the state’s top elections official and the GOP’s legislative leader have on election policy?
Simon’s office brings election bills to the Legislature each session to make technical changes, respond to federal law or, recently, to have lawmakers release federal election security dollars.
And though the House DFL majority has previously been able to pass many of Simon’s election bills — and much has gotten into law via end-of-session conference committees and omnibus bills — the 2021 session has the two parties, and the two legislative chambers, going in opposite directions.
While the DFL-controlled House is seeking to expand access to the ballot, the GOP, which controls the state Senate, is prioritizing election security, which could have the effect of reducing turnout.
And even before the latest conflict, Simon noted that the Senate hasn’t passed his requests — or even heard them in committee.
“The inexplicable lack of legislative action over the past several years, as well as the pointless political game-playing that occurred with the delayed authorization of the Help America Vote Act funds,” he wrote in his Dec. 1 letter, “put Minnesota voters and administrators at an unnecessary disadvantage.”