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How easy should it be for immigrant communities to vote in Minnesota?
That question will not appear in those words on your November ballot. But it lies at the heart of the race for secretary of state: Minnesota’s chief elections official.
Secretary of State Steve Simon, a Democrat, told Sahan Journal that he has made translating voting materials, working with immigrant community leaders, and recruiting bilingual election judges central to his role over his past eight years in office. “That’s personal to me,” he said. “I am the proud son of an immigrant.”
If elected, Kim Crockett, the Republican candidate, may take a vastly different approach.
“I’m not willing to get up in the morning and go work for people who aren’t from here,” she told the Justice and Drew podcast in a July 2018 interview, discussing immigration and the welfare system. (When it first aired, this interview received scant attention in mainstream media; it was shared with Sahan Journal in August.)
Contacted by phone, email, and text message over the course of a month, Crockett declined to speak with Sahan Journal or respond to written questions. The Minnesota Republican Party also did not respond to questions about the secretary of state’s race and whether Crockett’s comments also represent the party’s views.
Crockett made national headlines last month when a September 2020 radio interview surfaced in which she questioned whether people who don’t speak English should vote.
“The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that indeed you can help an unlimited number of people vote if they are disabled or can’t read or speak English, which raises the question, should they be voting?” she said. “We can talk about that another time.”
In August, Crockett told the Huffington Post that those comments had been taken out of context and that the limits were intended to prevent influence from political operatives. But she did not clarify what she meant by her question, “should they be voting?”
Crockett did not respond to questions from Sahan Journal about her radio comments.
A new Star Tribune/MPR News/KARE 11 Minnesota Poll showed Simon leading Crockett 48 percent to 40 percent among likely voters, with 9 percent undecided.
In an interview with Sahan Journal, Simon called Crockett’s comments questioning whether people who require assistance should vote “appalling and disqualifying.”
“It shows a shocking lack of awareness and a bizarre outlook and a particular cruelty to suggest that people who use tools that the law provides them in the polling place are themselves suspect,” he said.
What the Minnesota Secretary of State does
- Coordinate statewide elections
- Provide information on voter registration
- Certify voting equipment
- Develop training material for election judges
What the Minnesota Secretary of State doesn’t do
- Count votes
- Decide who wins elections
- Set voting laws
- Conduct foreign policy (that’s the U.S. Secretary of State)
As Secretary of State, he has prioritized outreach to immigrant communities and translating voting materials, Simon said. But, he stressed, those priorities represent his choices his office has made. Most of his actions to make voting accessible to immigrant communities are not required by law, he explained.
“There is a tremendous ability for the office of Secretary of State to impact immigrant communities, hopefully positively as I have tried to do, but also negatively,” he said. “Someone else in this office could shut that down and decide not to do those things or do far less of those things, and at worst, could do things that are harmful to immigrant communities.”
A secretary of voting outreach
The Minnesota Secretary of State is responsible for overseeing and coordinating statewide elections. That involves providing information on voter registration, certifying voting equipment, developing training material for election judges, and testifying at the legislature about possible changes to voting laws.
The Secretary of State does not count ballots—city and county officials do that at the local level.
But beyond the administrative functions, the Secretary of State plays a key role in making voting accessible to Minnesotans.
“They’re literally the bridge, in my view, between everyday Minnesotans—regardless of race, ethnicity, zip code, partisan affiliation—and the power of the individual vote,” said Annastacia Belladonna-Carrera, executive director of the nonpartisan voting rights group Common Cause Minnesota.
“It’s about educating. It’s about meeting people where they’re at. It’s about carving a pathway for every single Minnesotan to understand and see inherently why they ultimately have the power in our democracy.”
Simon, a former state legislator from Hopkins, first won election as Secretary of State in 2014. He is running for his third term. In his eight years as Secretary of State, Simon says he has worked to make voting more accessible to immigrant communities through a handful of strategies: translation, work with community leaders, and litigation.
When he took office, election materials—such as fact sheets for new voters, videos about how to vote, and sections of the Secretary of State website—were available in five languages. Simon has increased that number to 12: English, Spanish, Hmong, Somali, Vietnamese, Russian, Chinese, Lao, Oromo, Khmer, Amharic, and Karen. Census data show these are the most commonly spoken languages in Minnesota, he said.
The need for multilingual election materials is personal to him, as someone who grew up in a bilingual household, Simon explained. His mother spoke English fluently, but preferred her first language for technical instructions. “I don’t care whether it was the refrigerator manual or a government document, she wanted that stuff in her native language, as any person would,” Simon said.
Simon stressed that translating election material was a choice.
“Another person could come in and say Nope, we’re just doing English. No, we’re just doing three languages,” he said. “There’s no law that says we had to do this. We did it because it’s the right thing to do.”
In coming weeks, the Secretary of State’s office plans to also roll out translations of other online tools to help people request absentee ballots, register to vote, and find their polling places.
He also cited statewide outreach efforts to make voting more accessible, including nonpartisan, in-person meetings with community leaders in immigrant communities throughout the state to discuss clearing obstacles to voting, Simon said.
In recent years, he has also partnered with cities and counties to recruit bilingual election judges. And sometimes, he said, going to court is necessary to make voting more accessible.
Before the COVID pandemic, Minnesota law allowed any individual to help up to three voters fill out their ballots. But Simon believed that law was in conflict with the federal Voting Rights Act, which allows any voter to receive help from the person of their choice—regardless of how many other voters that helper had assisted.
In March 2020, Simon settled a consent decree with a group of Hmong voters—including St. Paul city council members Dai Thao and Nelsie Yang—who had sued to lift the limit on helping voters.
This consent decree meant the state’s limit was no longer enforceable. The Minnesota Supreme Court later upheld that decision after a separate lawsuit. That’s when Crockett gave a podcast interview questioning whether voters who need help should be able to vote at all.
Eighty percent of Minnesota voters turned out in the 2020 election, a higher percentage than any other state. That still means one in five eligible Minnesotans didn’t vote, Simon points out, and in immigrant communities, voter turnout may have been lower. Still, he sees Minnesota’s record turnout as evidence that his strategies are working.
“We’ve been, if I may brag, number one in the country in turnout the last three elections,” Simon said. “I think it’s been successful.”
‘These aren’t people coming from Norway’
Before she ran for secretary of state, Crockett made national headlines for her immigration views. In 2019, The New York Times quoted her in a story about Islamophobia toward the Somali community in St. Cloud.
“I think of America, the great assimilator, as a rubber band, but with this—we’re at the breaking point,” said Crockett, then the vice president and general counsel of Center of the American Experiment, a conservative think tank. “These aren’t people coming from Norway, let’s put it that way. These people are very visible.”
In writings for the Center of the American Experiment, Crockett had previously expressed concerns about the cultural and religious values of Minnesota refugees. In 2017, she praised President Donald Trump’s restrictions on travel and immigration from predominantly Muslim nations—often described as the Muslim ban. She described what she perceived as challenges stemming from refugee resettlement.
“Minnesota now welcomes refugees primarily from states where Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and/or animism constitute the majority religions,” she wrote. “Most come from failed Muslim-majority states like Somalia. Refugees often arrive with little proficiency in English and without skills required for gainful employment. They also bring cultural and law enforcement challenges: The practice of polygamy and female genital mutilation, low workforce participation by men, and inexperience with the requirements of citizenship and voting.”
Crockett did not respond to Sahan Journal’s questions about whether Minnesota should prioritize immigration from people with particular cultural or religious values.
Crockett’s views on immigration do not appear to have changed much in the past few years. The Center of the American Experiment temporarily suspended Crockett for her comments to The New York Times. At the time, she apologized.
But in April, she disavowed that apology at a Republican primary debate. Michael Brodkorb, a former deputy chair of the Minnesota Republican Party, posted an online video of her comments.
“I would say everything today that I said in 2019,” Crockett says in the debate clip.
Campaigning on the Big Lie
During her Secretary of State campaign, Crockett has received national media attention for her embrace of the Big Lie: the false notion that Donald Trump actually won the 2020 presidential election. (To be clear, he did not.)
Crockett’s campaign has stressed the need to make Minnesota’s elections “fair and secure.” She has described the 2020 election as “rigged,” both in Minnesota and in the rest of the country. In making this argument, Crockett has said she has no way of knowing whether Donald Trump actually won Minnesota. Joe Biden won Minnesota by 7 percentage points—233,012 votes.
Crockett did not respond to questions from Sahan Journal about why she has described the election as rigged or whether Joe Biden is the legitimately elected president of the United States.
Simon called Crockett’s theories about rigged elections “bizarre and irresponsible.”
“It’s the kind of disinformation that undercuts our democracy in dangerous ways,” Simon said. “I reject it, and I hope and I believe Minnesotans will reject that kind of conspiracy thinking and scapegoating.”
Crockett says elderly and immigrants have been ‘exploited for their votes’
In her campaign platform, Crockett outlines a plan to curtail some of the tools that Minnesota has employed to expand voting access. She wants to reduce early voting periods, for instance, and reverse the trend in rural and small-town Minnesota to vote by mail.
Crockett has also said she would lobby the legislature for a state voter identification law. This would require voters to show a photo ID at the polls. Currently, you only need photo ID or some other proof of address if you are registering to vote at the polling place—otherwise you can just sign in.
Some studies have shown that voter identification requirements result in lower voter turnout, particularly among African American and younger voters—who tend to vote for Democrats. Minnesotans voted down a proposed constitutional amendment for voter identification in 2012.
Crockett’s platform mentions immigrants only once: “The elderly, homeless, and non-English speaking citizens are being exploited for their votes,” she writes. “Why do election rules allow and encourage this?”
Crockett did not respond to a Sahan Journal request to explain this assertion. But Simon dismissed Crockett’s claim.
“That’s totally false, and shows a lack of knowledge about how the real world works in elections,” he said. “It’s not true. Obviously, no system is perfect. Ours has multiple safeguards. And it has withstood the test of time.”
Law enforcement has found only 16 credible instances of voter misconduct in Minnesota since the 2020 presidential election, Simon said. (An FBI investigation into possible fraud in the August 2020 primary in Minneapolis has so far resulted in no fraud-related charges. Simon declined to comment about that investigation, as his office is assisting the prosecution.)
“That’s 16 too many,” Simon said. “We want it to be zero.” But in the context of 5.7 million Minnesota residents—3.3 million of whom voted in the 2020 election—that number is “microscopic,” he said.
“To suggest on the strength of one or two cases that that we need to make voting harder, or tougher, or more remote for any particular community, and especially new Americans who are just as much citizens as I am or any other native-born Minnesotan is, is really out of bounds,” Simon said.
‘The use of disinformation is never okay’
As executive director of Common Cause Minnesota, Annastacia Belladonna-Carrera is an advocate to make the democratic process and government more accessible to all of Minnesota’s communities. She praised Simon’s work to make voting information accessible in multiple languages. But she thinks it can go further.
Belladonna-Carrera would like to see ballots, too, available in multiple languages. She’d also like to see Simon respond to feedback from communities of color about what she described as a “cumbersome and not user-friendly website.”
She wishes Simon played a more proactive role in brokering solutions with local officials when rural communities of color have problems with their polling places. And though she expressed appreciation for his outreach and engagement staff, she wishes that team were better staffed.
Common Cause Minnesota does not endorse candidates for political office. Still, Belladonna-Carrera said, the difference between the Secretary of State candidates is clear.
“I will give you one big highlighted yellow contrast between these two candidates,” she said. “One candidate has made it a pillar of their campaign to schlep outright disinformation. And I will tell you it is not Steve Simon.”
Sowing confusion and undermining voters’ faith in the democratic process, Belladonna-Carrera said, is unacceptable. She emphasized that her criticism of Crockett was not about political views.
“We love to see amazing candidates competing and disagreeing and giving the public a real hard decision to make,” she said. “That’s our bread and butter. That’s a perfect democracy. But the use of disinformation, the dog-whistling and politicizing of issues to feed a fringe base, as few as they are, is never okay.”
A tale of two conventions
In recent months, Simon has begun to speak openly about another part of his family immigration history. At the state DFL convention in May, he shared how his great-grandfather fled persecution in Lithuania.
Later, Simon recounted his family’s story to Sahan Journal. “The year before my great-grandfather left for America, Jews in the Russian Empire lost the right to vote,” Simon said. “And then things got worse. Nobody knows for sure what would have happened to him had he stayed in Lithuania. But over 90 percent of the Jews there were murdered in the Holocaust.”
For Simon, his family history fleeing persecution in Lithuania serves as a motivating force to make voting accessible to today’s new Americans.
“I come from a perspective that is grateful every day that he made the trip he made, and grateful that when he came to this country, he had a right to vote,” Simon told Sahan Journal. “He had a say in who governed him and how, and in his future. And the right to vote represents that say, and it’s precious.”
Simon’s emotional comments at the convention came a week after Crockett accepted her nomination at the Republican convention. During that convention, Crockett played a video showing an antisemitic trope: George Soros—a Hungarian-born investor and Holocaust refugee—as a puppetmaster controlling Simon.
David Hann, the chair of the Minnesota Republican Party, later apologized for the video. But Crockett did not.