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Minnesota wants its bragging rights back

Zandy Zwiebel gestures for the nominated LWV officers for 2016-2017 to step forward as Mary Streufert, outgoing co-president, looks on. (Photo by Naomi Yaeger)1 / 4
Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon speaks to the Duluth League of Women Voters at the May 12 annual meeting. (Photo by Naomi Yaeger)2 / 4
Outgoing Duluth League of Women Voters Co-president Ilsa Hoeschen listens as Secretary of State Steve Simon addresses members on voting rights and barriers. (Photo by Naomi Yaeger)3 / 4
Some of the new Duluth League of Women Voters board members gather at the front of the room to be recognized. (Photo by Theresa O'Gara)4 / 4

Sporting a red sticker on his lapel with the words, "I will vote," Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon wants to help Minnesota get its reputation back.

For nine years in a row Minnesota held the record for highest voter turnout. But in the 2014 election, Minnesota fell to No. 6.

"My goal this year it to help get us back to number one," Simon told the Duluth League of Women Voters at their annual meeting May 12 in Greysolon Plaza.

"That's where we belong. And that's where we should return this year and no later," Simon told the crowd of more than 80 diners.

"Nine in a row is an extraordinary feat," he said. "Imagine what you would think if you heard about an actress who won nine Oscars in a row, or a football team that won nine Superbowls in a row."

"Certainly some part of ownership belongs to groups like League of Women Voters who year in, year out, push for exactly that: for action, for voting, for being part the process," Simon said.

In 2014 voter turnout slipped to 50 percent from more than 77 percent previously, with some districts reporting more than a 90 percent turnout earlier.

The Secretary of State office isn't in the spotlight, except when something goes wrong with elections. The recount of the 2008 Minnesota Al Franken/Norm Coleman election is one example. Another is the 2000 Florida recount of the race between George W. Bush and Al Gore.

Simon said he has a personal passion to ensure voting rights, which he calls the "marquee" responsibility of the Secretary of State.

"The mission of the office, traditionally, is to be the office that preserves, protects and always strengthens the right to vote. That is the office at its best," he said to a round of applause.

If Simon could make his personal mission into a bumper sticker, he said it would read, "Make it as easy as possible for all Minnesotans to register or vote. Period."

Mock vote encourages high schoolers

Bringing young, new voters into the fold is part of Secretary of State Steve Simon's plan to restore Minnesota as the state with the highest voter turnout.

In 2014, the year Minnesota lost its status as highest turnout, only 20 percent of the state's young voters, age 18-24, participated.

"We have work to do when it comes to our youngest voters," Simon said.

This year the Secretary of State's office is sponsoring Minnesota Students Vote 2016, a mock presidential election for high schools. In the past some high schools had their own mock elections, but this year the SOS office will provide high schools with ballots and "I voted" stickers, and will post election results to the SOS website.

High schools run the elections the way they want. "We are not going to micromanage how they do it," Simon said. So far 146 schools have signed up, including Duluth East High School and Duluth Marshall School.

"So now we just have to lean on Denfeld," Simon said.

Simon said this an opportunity to get good habits started early with soon-to-be voters.

The SOS office has also talked to college presidents and administrators to encourage a friendly voter registration competition between colleges in Minnesota.

The message to attract voters needs to change from voting because "it's the right thing" to one of voting for one's own self-interest. "It's not selfishness," Simon said."You might not be into politics but politics are into you. And failure to vote is not an act or rebellion, it is an act of surrender."

Another new program is the "Pledge and Reg" initiative, which will send voter registration kits to organizations of any size.

Minnesota College Ballot Bowl is a new voter registration initiative in which campuses across the state will compete to register the most students. (Image: Minnesota Secretary of State office)

Naomi Yaeger

Naomi Yaeger is a freelance writer and the former editor of the Budgeteer. See her blog at www.DuluthDailyPhoto.com.

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