The Minnesota campaign drawing the most national attention – and the most national money – isn’t the race for governor or the 2nd Congressional District. Instead, it is the race to determine whether DFLer Steve Simon wins a third term as secretary of state.
Simon was among a handful of elections officials on the cover of Time magazine who were depicted as “The Defenders: Inside the Fight to Save America’s Elections.” He faces GOP nominee Kim Crockett, who wants to curtail early voting and limit absentee ballots.
This usually sleepy, down-ballot contest is this year one of a handful of secretary of state races across the U.S. testing whether the Donald Trump-led denial of the 2020 election results has political potency.
“The Real Winner of GOP’s 2022 Primaries Was Denial of 2020 Election,” read one headline from Bloomberg. “Dems light up airwaves in key secretary of state races,” was the headline in Politico. Both include the Minnesota race among those being targeted.
And it’s not just about national news stories. But the same campaigns making headlines, at least on the Democratic side, are being supported by millions of dollars of television and digital campaign ads as well as direct mail – both supporting their reelections and denouncing their GOP opponents.
The Democratic Association of Secretaries of State and its campaign arm SAFE (Safe Accessible Fair Elections) announced it had launched an $11 million effort – one the organization says could grow to $25 million – to defend Simon and other incumbents in Michigan, Nevada, Arizona and Georgia. DASS, as it is sometimes called, lacked a full-time political staff until two years ago.
So far, $2.5 million has been booked on Minnesota television – about $1.8 million in the Twin Cities and $800,000 in Duluth, according to records filed by the stations with the Federal Communications Commission. Simon is a vice chair of DASS, a tax-exempt group organized under Section 527 of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code whose purpose is to elect or defeat candidates for federal, state or local public office.
DASS executive director Kim Rogers called the spending unprecedented and comes in response to both the COVID-19 pandemic and continued misinformation about the 2020 election.
“The biggest thing since 2020 is that there has been a seismic shift in elections,” Rogers said. The ad called “Decision” praises Simon for defending elections and attacks Crockett. “This November, our rights are under attack,” the narrator says. It uses video of Crockett describing herself as “the election denier in chief,” video she says was taken out of context to hide that she was mocking accusations made against her to that effect. But it accurately says she wants to shorten the early voting period and wants fewer voters using absentee or mail voting.
Another media campaign is run by iVote, a national organization started in 2014 to promote voting rights and voter access as well as support candidates for election supervision jobs, mostly secretaries of state. It has purchased $454,000 worth of ads on KSTP, according to FCC filings that are to run from Sept. 26 to election day. It has made inquiries about purchases with WCCO, KARE and KMSP. Politico reported that the group plans to spend $2 million in Minnesota and Michigan. Former Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie is on the board of iVote.
Both DASS (as SAFEMN) and iVote have registrations with the Minnesota Campaign Finance Board, but most of their activity is not reported to either the CFB or the Federal Election Commission. As 527 organizations, named for the section of IRS tax law, they avoid disclosure by not “expressly” advocating for votes for or against candidates.
Quarterly IRS filings do require disclosure of donors, but they are not as timely as campaign finance reports.
Simon has also ratcheted up fundraising for his own campaign. First elected in 2014 to succeed Ritchie, Simon has raised $1.26 million this election after raising just $340,503 in 2018, including $55,000 in public campaign subsidy. Simon is foregoing the public cash this year because it would have limited how much he could spend to $483,000 under the program’s rules.
Crockett is not benefiting from robust fundraising nor from national organizations spending in Minnesota. She has raised just over $314,000 as of the most recent state filings. Of that total, $66,695 was from the public subsidy program. She has attempted, however, to use the money flowing to Simon and against her to encourage donations to her campaign.
“These dark-money attacks are full of vicious lies and landing in Minnesota mailboxes already,” she wrote in one fundraising appeal. “The TV and radio ads will be relentless. They are desperate to do anything … lie, cheat, or steal, to keep Steve Simon in office.”
‘Train wreck’ or ‘big lie’?
The secretary of state’s race isn’t the only campaign talking about the 2020 election. GOP nominee for governor Scott Jensen said in April that Simon “maybe better check out to see if you look good in stripes, because you’ve gotten away with too much, too long.” He repeated the line at the state GOP convention in Rochester in May.
Several local party organizations have centered fundraisers around showings of “2000 Mules,” the Dinesh D’Souza documentary that claims it has proof of ballot harvesting and other vote fraud. Crockett has appeared at such events. (FactCheck.org has fact-checked the allegations in the documentary and terms the result “speculative” and failing to provide the definite proof the producers claim. Former Trump Attorney General Bill Barr called the film unimpressive and based on a faulty premise about cellphone geotracking data. It did not change his view that the 2020 election “was not stolen by fraud.”)
Crockett has made election changes the centerpiece of her candidacy.
“I worked hard to stop the train wreck of the 2020 election and then examine the wreckage to make sure it never happened again,” Crockett told delegates at the GOP convention in Rochester in May. Simon, she said, used COVID “as cover to change how we vote but also how the vote was counted.”
The latter is a reference to one theme of GOP complaints about the 2020 election. A bipartisan bill was adopted before the election to promote mail voting as a way of reducing the number of voters in polling places. The concern was that scientific knowledge about the virus and its transmissibility wasn’t yet clear, and reducing in-person voting was a partial solution. Some 58 percent of Minnesota votes were cast via the mail or at early voting centers that election, more than double previous elections.
The same bill extended the time period when local election officials could begin processing mail ballots from seven days to 14 days. But the law specifically said there would be no extension of the deadline for accepting mailed ballots. They had to be received by 8 p.m. election evening.
That summer, three lawsuits were filed by groups including the NAACP, League of Women Voters and a group representing retirees seeking further change. Simon expected to lose those suits, so he entered into a consent decree that waived a requirement that mail ballots be witnessed and signed by another registered voter. It also said local elections staff could accept mailed ballots received up to two days after the election.
GOP interests challenged that decree as it applied to the presidential election only, losing in federal district court but prevailing somewhat at the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. That court said there was no legal authority for the state to extend the ballot acceptance period by two days without legislative approval. It ordered elections offices to separate ballots received after 8 p.m. election evening in the event that the plaintiffs challenged the legality of counting them.
Ultimately, Biden won by well more than the number of ballots received after 8 p.m. on election night, and no challenge was filed. The ballots were included in the final tally.
Crockett also told delegates, “I’ve been attacked by the corporate media that would like to shut us all up … cancel culture stops here.” She called for a return to “voting in person and rejecting the insecure, chaotic absentee balloting system and voting over wireless equipment connected to the internet.” (Minnesota law prohibits internet connectivity of voting machines.)
After winning the party endorsement, Crockett said she had spent a lot of time on the campaign trail with the GOP candidates for governor and attorney general, and they had picked up her talking points about the 2020 election.
“I’ve been harping on election integrity since day one,” she said. “And over the last few months of the campaign, it was so interesting. All of a sudden it sounded like everyone was running for secretary of state. So, they got the memo.”
For his part, Simon has been doing battle with legislative Republicans over bills he said are inspired by “the big lie” about the 2020 results.
Election security and Zuckerberg grants
During Sunday’s debate between Simon and Crockett on WCCO radio, the pair disagreed on several issues related to election security. Simon repeated his assertion that Minnesota elections, including the 2020 election, are fundamentally fair and safe. He said top-in-the-nation turnout by Minnesota voters is an endorsement of that assertion, saying the state balances voter access with vote security. Voting irregularities were “microscopic” in number, Simon said.
As he has since the start of the campaign, Simon said Crockett is engaged in a “hyper-partisan” attack on election integrity and is engaging in “increasingly bizarre conspiracy theories.” Such attacks on the integrity of the 2020 election – dismissed by Trump’s own Justice Department and FBI as well as dozens of judges across the U.S. – contributed to attacks on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Feeding those theories of election fraud “is irresponsible. It’s disqualifying,” he said.
Crockett accused Simon – and the news media – of dismissing what she said were legitimate concerns about the election, concerns that could be assuaged with the use of photo ID to vote and provisional ballots for those who register on election day. She said the 46-day early voting period is “excessive” and that it presents voters with the risk of voting before some important events or information is known.
“Voters don’t feel listened to,” she said. Crockett also accused Simon of favoring voter convenience over election security. “I don’t think I’d be running, I don’t think I’d be putting myself through this adventure, if I felt that the administration of elections could not stand some significant improvement.”
Simon opposes photo ID for actual voting, noting that state voters rejected a photo ID requirement in 2012. A driver’s license number, state ID number or the last four digits of a social security number are currently needed to register to vote. He also opposes provisional ballots because they would create a “maybe” pile of ballots and require those voters to go through additional steps, including visiting elections offices in person after elections if their ballot is challenged.
He also noted that mail ballots are matched against an identification number chosen by each voter when they apply for such ballots, a system he said is better than trying to match signatures.
The two also debated another common theme of those who said the 2020 election was flawed. That is the distribution of $350 million in grants to elections offices across the country by a nonprofit created by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan. A spokesperson for the Center for Tech and Civic Life said the grants help election offices “have the staffing, training, and equipment necessary” for a smooth election.
Republicans accuse Zuckerberg of using the money to boost turnout in blue areas and to infiltrate election administration. A bill in the state Senate last session would have banned such grants.
“Imagine if the National Rifle Association or some conservative organization had done that,” Crockett said.
Simon said it is legitimate to debate whether government should accept such money from nonprofits. “But in 2020, the money was used in a nonpartisan way for administrative purposes during a very, very difficult time,” he said.
Simon and the spokesperson for the Center for Tech and Civic Life pointed out that all national applicants, red areas and blue areas, were given funding. In Minnesota, grants were spent on such items as printing more mail ballots to meet increased demand, renting extra space so Minneapolis election workers and voters could spread out, and the purchase of a folder-inserter machine for mailings in Nobles County.
During the session, Simon called GOP complaints about the use of money “a paranoid fantasy” that was part of the election denial campaign to reduce trust in elections.
At the end of the WCCO debate, the two candidates were asked if they would accept the results of the 2022 count.
Simon endorsed the people and processes set up to run state elections. “I am confident that this election, having learned from 2020, having thrived and passed that ultimate stress test, that we’re poised for a very, very successful election in Minnesota.”
“I think that’s kind of an odd question,” Crockett said. “We aren’t there yet. We’re weeks out. And we’ll just have to see what happens between now and the certification of the election.”
But Crockett also said that election laws are “designed to be final. Somebody gets certified, we go on, we govern and we go to the next election.”
Callaghan covers the state government for MinnPost. Follow him on Twitter or email him at pcallaghan(at)minnpost(dot)com.
MinnPost is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization whose mission is to provide high-quality journalism for people who care about Minnesota.
Correction: This story was changed to report that 58 percent of the 2020 vote was cast by mail ballot or at early voting centers. The original in MinnPost stated incorrectly that 58 percent was cast by mail.
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