By Britt Robson
Photos by Mark Luinenburg
Most any Minnesota voter would recognize the thing perched in a corner of Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon’s office on the ground floor of the State Office Building adjoining the Capitol in St. Paul. It seems to be an ordinary voting booth, constructed of standard-issue blue and white plastic on metal legs, with three walls for privacy and a flat surface on which to lay your ballot.
But the voting surface in this booth is disheveled, with white paper dots littered around an open booklet. “This is from Broward County,” says Simon meaningfully.
Ah, yes. Broward County, Florida, will forever be known as a battleground site for recounted ballots in the notoriously contested 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. The white paper dots attest to the fact that Floridians punched out serrated circles instead of darkening ovals with pens to make their choices. Except, the ones that clung to the ballot—the infamous “hanging chads”—sowed confusion about what voters actually intended and thus compromised the integrity of the outcome.
Simon picks up the open booklet to show that it’s actually a Florida ballot from 2000. He points out how the relatively small and dense typeset is slightly misaligned on the adjoining pages, making it easy for a voter with less than eagle-eye vision or a steely hand to physically sabotage their intellectual decision.
The voting booth is a nifty conversation piece, an artifact of political history that also demonstrates that even the most mundane aspects of our great American voting tradition must be rigorously scrutinized and safeguarded.
After spending a little time with Simon (J.D. ’96), you come away with two other conclusions. One is that the current threats to the sanctity of our elections are much more sinister and sophisticated than the paper-dot chads and sloppy typeset of 18 years ago. Another is that even if Simon were not Secretary of State, he’d likely have this voting-booth tableau set up in his home or private business to spark conversation about our participatory democracy.
Minnesota happens to be one of the best places in the country when it comes to open and secure elections, according to reports by the Center for American Progress and the Pew Charitable Trusts, which ranked the state second in “election performance” in 2016. It habitually tops the list when it comes to voter turnout, largely because Minnesota makes voting easy: The state was early to the table in allowing same-day voter registration, adopting the policy in 1974 following Maine, and has one of the country’s lengthiest early voting periods. In 2013 and 2014, Simon helped usher in online voter registration and no-excuses-needed absentee voting while a state legislator representing the Minneapolis suburbs of St. Louis Park and Hopkins.
But, what really makes Minnesota stand out as a bastion of electoral integrity is its stubborn reliance on paper ballots. Other states, like Georgia and Pennsylvania, have gone to touch-screen voting machines that leave no verifiable paper trail should anything go wrong. During the 2016 presidential election, according to a near-consensus among American intelligence officials, agents of the Russian government conducted a coordinated effort to hack into the voting systems of more than a dozen states. Minnesota was among them, but paper balloting saved the day.
“From the standpoint of election security, the fundamentals of our system are very strong,” says Simon. “You go to the ballot booth in Minnesota and you are just darkening an oval with a pen. It doesn’t even have to be a special pen—it could be a BIC pen from Walgreens. It is very hard to hack paper.
“While it is true that you or an election judge feed that paper ballot into a ballot counting machine, that machine under state law shall not and must not be connected to the internet, and even after that we have an encrypted system by which the results are reported and uploaded, and even after that the counties do what is called a postelection review, a postelection audit, and even after that, under federal law, we have to keep the ballots for nearly two years,” says Simon while tucking into a scone in a coffee shop on the Minneapolis skyway. “So anyone with a suspicion or a hunch or a worry can touch and see and feel the actual ballots.”
It started with a placemat
To understand how Simon was seemingly destined to become the good shepherd of voting rights and civic engagement in his native Minnesota, begin with a restaurant placemat brought home by his parents in 1976. To celebrate the country’s Bicentennial, the mat arrayed all 38 presidents up to that point, from George Washington to Gerald Ford.
Six-year-old Steve memorized them all. In order. And a good-government geek was born.
Before he was 10, Simon was leafing through the issues of Time magazine that came in the mail, and knew the names of all the political correspondents on television. His precocious, and voracious, appetite for current events was whetted and sated by the arrival of round-the-clock updates from Headline News and its more in-depth sister station, CNN, during the 1980s.
At Hopkins High School just west of Minneapolis, Simon dropped tennis during his junior year to better concentrate on speech and debate. He competed in national tournaments and, as a senior, was state champion in extemporaneous speaking. When he and his buddies took a couple of “epic” road trips during the succeeding two summers—one to the East Coast, one to the West Coast—Simon made sure the routes went through as many state capitals as possible.
“Steve must have been the easiest child to raise you could ever imagine,” says his friend since high school, Adam Samaha, a professor of civil liberties at New York University. “He was honest and dependable, always wanting to do the right thing. I actually think his mother might have wished he’d taken more risks and gotten into more trouble.” Indeed, his sister Andrea Simon, younger by three years, went to a different high school rather than deal with the expectations Simon’s legacy might create for her with his former teachers.
Asked if he’d ever gone through a “wild time” in his life, Simon repeats the question and gamely responds, “Yeah, there was a period in high school where I got into a couple of scrapes, was sort of pushing boundaries.” Asked whether people would laugh at any specific examples he might provide, he concedes, “Yeah, most people would laugh.”
But there was one rebellious act that reverberated through his family. After high school, Simon chose to attend Tufts University instead of the University of Minnesota. “My family bleeds maroon and gold,” he says, noting that his paternal grandparents were both alumni. “My late grandmother graduated in 1924, which is pretty remarkable—you don’t see pictures of many women in the yearbooks from back then.” He adds that his father, Ron Simon, is a “double Gopher: He went as an undergraduate and then to law school.” The elder Simon’s subsequent relationship with U men’s hockey coach Glen Sonmor helped launch his successful career as a professional sports agent. He later became president of the Alumni Association’s board.
Meanwhile, Steve Simon was earning his B.A. in political science at Tufts in Medford, Massachusetts, where he was a member of the school’s College Democrats and the founder of a now-defunct political journal. But perhaps his most valuable political experience was discovering how often his patrician classmates condescended to the kid from flyover country.
“I don’t pretend to be anything but a metro guy—I’m from Hopkins,” says Simon. “But I think I know how people in rural Minnesota feel when they say people [from the Twin Cities] talk down to them. I remember feeling [at Tufts] like, ‘They think I’m a dipshit just because of where I’m from.’” It’s one reason why he was respected by members of both parties while serving five terms in the Minnesota House, and why he has set and fulfilled a goal of visiting every one of Minnesota’s 87 counties each year since being elected Secretary of State in 2014.
That isn’t to say Simon didn’t engage in partisan politics. After Tufts, he proved so adept while volunteering for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign that he became a paid staffer, even earning a brief cameo in the 1993 documentary The War Room, when he got up to change the television channel. “Steve was probably the only person in that movie who didn’t follow Clinton to Washington,” says his closest friend, Mitch Gordon (J.D. ’97, M.A. ’97), an associate professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. Nope, the prodigal son was instead returning home to get his law degree at the U.
Terrible grades during his first semester of law school, in February 1994, prompted the first real personal crisis of Simon’s life. It sounds trivial in retrospect, but up until then he’d burnished an image—and perhaps a self-image—as a Dudley Do-Right, a straight arrow. “It probably hit me harder than it should have,” Simon acknowledges.
Gordon, his roommate at the time, recalls that, “It freaked him out because he was working so hard. He got very quiet. He had to learn to learn a different way.” Gordon went on to manage a number of Simon’s political campaigns, that fateful day becoming an inside joke. One of them will say: Something bad happened today, but it’s not February ’94.
Five years later, a more profound shock rocked Simon’s existence. His 54-year-old mother, Marlen, went to the doctor’s office with a persistent cough. Twelve days later, she died from cancer that had spread throughout her body. His sister Andrea believes it motivated Steve to more seriously pursue his longstanding goal of running for public office. “He’d always wanted to be in public service, and when our mom died we both had a ‘life is short’ moment,” she says. “He felt like she would have liked to see him run. So the night he was first elected was celebratory and a little sad at the same time.”
Simon invokes the visceral experiences of family to explain his political views. His linkage of patriotism and immigration stems from his great grandparents coming over from Lithuania—“They didn’t just immigrate, they fled; we have the ship’s manifest telling of my great grandfather coming to the Iron Range as a 19-year-old laborer”—and from his mother, born south of Vienna, who met Ron in Austria and moved her life here.
Simon—who has two young kids, a son and a daughter, with his wife, former lobbyist Leia Christoffer Simon—cited the limited mobility of his father, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, when he authored the no-excuses absentee voting bill in the Legislature. Indeed, his longstanding presence and activism on various election committees, and his work to successfully defeat a 2012 amendment that would have required a photo ID to vote in Minnesota, made his candidacy for Secretary of State seem inevitable when Mark Ritchie stepped down in 2014.
Those who know Simon aren’t surprised that he embraces the more civic-minded and less partisan nature of his duties. “One of the things I am actually quite proud of is that I was sued by my own political party,” he says, referring to the DFL challenge to his ruling that the Trump-Pence presidential ticket would remain on the Minnesota ballot despite bureaucratic deficiencies in their application—a decision eventually upheld by the Minnesota Supreme Court.
Indeed, he seems most at home cheerleading for voter participation, sometimes telling crowds, “Failure to vote is not an act of rebellion, it is an act of surrender.”
The threat to cybersecurity
“I want to put out an alarm without being an alarmist, if that is even possible,” Simon says, summing up his approach to election cybersecurity just days after testifying before the U.S. Senate on the topic. He’s sitting at a coffee shop, honoring a request to meet out of the office, though he doesn’t drink coffee and the place happens to be right downstairs from his former law office at Robins Kaplan LLP. He contents himself with the scone. “I feel very good about our situation in Minnesota. I have a high level of confidence that we have minimized the risk.”
Citing the state’s reliance on paper ballots and counters disconnected from the internet, he says, “My concern is less about the polling place than it is about some of the centralized functions that our office operates. For example, we run the statewide voter registration system, which is what it sounds like, and more.” The database contains registered voters’ names, addresses, dates of birth, Social Security numbers, and voting histories. Theoretically, hackers could remove names or other information from the rolls. “It has been reported publicly that Minnesota was one of the 21 states targeted by Russian hackers,” he says. “The good news is that Minnesota passed the test. We were able to turn back and block any wrongdoers.
“But [in] two of those 21 states, Illinois and Arizona, there was a breach, and in Illinois in particular it was a very serious breach. Those breaches occurred in centralized systems . . . at the Secretary of State’s office. So we have been very concerned about that.”
Minnesota’s voter registration database was built in 2004. A March 2018 report from the Office of the Legislative Auditor recommended modernizing the system to ensure that voter eligibility information is as up to date as possible and so it can handle an ever-increasing number of records.
Simon credits some of the success at safeguarding the system against hacks to actions taken before 2016. He formed an internal IT security team to beef up protections, then hired an outside vendor to probe it for vulnerabilities. During the 2018 legislative session, Simon sought approval to access federal money for a project to “recode, resecure, and modernize our system.” Unfortunately, the request, which required the state to match only 5 percent of the federal outlay, fell victim to politics, as Governor Dayton’s veto of omnibus bills passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature included the approval.
“There is $6.6 million specifically earmarked for [Minnesota election security] sitting in a bank account and we can’t touch it,” Simon says. “That’s frustrating, but it doesn’t undermine my fundamental confidence in the system.”
Then comes the non-alarmist alarm. “So, as I said, we have minimized the risk. But I don’t think you can honestly say we have eliminated it, any more than Home Depot or Equifax or anyone else can say it. When it comes to cybersecurity it is like a race without a finish line. I can only tell you what the Department of Homeland Security officials have told me time and again: Expect more incidents from more sources. And when they say that, I take it seriously.”
That is the governmental side of voting security and election integrity. But of course there is the other threat, more insidious and diffuse in our election process: the spread of disinformation and the assault on accepted norms of truth.
“Our citizens have to be unhackable,” says Melissa Hortman (J.D. ’95), minority leader in the Minnesota House, who went to law school and came to the Legislature at the same time as Simon. “Yes, our systems are under stress, and there is no one I would rather have in the Secretary of State’s office than Steve. But it is also up to the voters themselves to carefully scrutinize information, so that we are not hackable.”
In this sense, too, Simon is a solid role model. No, perhaps the rest of us don’t go to Des Moines with a group of friends the weekend before the Iowa presidential caucuses and attend every campaign event they can squeeze in (“as tourists, enjoying the process,” Simon explains), as he’s done for the past five contests. And not all of us can relate to Simon’s agony at possessing every edition of the Almanac of American Politics (which began publishing in 1972) but one.
But if you hang around Simon, the enthusiasm is infectious. “Steve is so trustworthy, honest, and dependable, and so genuinely interested in people, with no exceptions, that he draws people to him,” says friend Samaha. “I know he’s been the best man at more weddings than anyone I’ve ever met.” To that add best man for the job of fostering confidence in our electoral system.
Britt Robson, once Rudy Perpich's speechwriter, covers the Timberwolves and music for a variety of local and national publications.
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