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Mankato Free Press: Economic data, election prep part of secretary of state tour

February 18, 2016


"Secretary of State Steve Simon is touring Minnesota months before the 2016 presidential election to highlight new election and economic work his office is taking on this year."

Mankato Free Press: Economic data, election prep part of secretary of state tour
By Trey Mewes, 2/18/16

MANKATO — Want more information on area businesses? How about an online way to register to vote before the upcoming primary, or the November election?

The Minnesota Secretary of State's Office has you covered.

Secretary of State Steve Simon is touring Minnesota months before the 2016 presidential election to highlight new election and economic work his office is taking on this year. He was in Mankato Thursday to discuss the secretary of state's role as part of a public affairs forum sponsored by Greater Mankato Growth.

One of the new secretary of state's initiatives includes gathering voluntary information from businesses whenever owners file or refile commercial paperwork each year. State workers have tried to put together a five-question voluntary survey and designed the necessary software to gather information for the past nine months or so, and Simon hopes his office can put this idea into action by the end of the year.

"This is kind of trailblazing," Simon told the crowd. "No one else is doing this, and we'll see how it goes."

When business owners file for commercial licenses each year, they don't have to disclose much information about themselves, even what kind of business they run.

Such information would be useful for state officials, economists and the public at large to determine how Minnesota's economy fares each year. While the Secretary of State's Office partners with St. Cloud State University to produce quarterly economic reports for each of Minnesota's six regions, the voluntary information would help watchdogs track economic trends, among other uses.

While some question how many people would give basic information about their businesses if they weren't required to do it, Simon and state officials hope trade organizations and chambers of commerce such as Greater Mankato Growth can help promote the survey once it's up and running.

"Our organization thrives on good data," said Patrick Baker, director of government and institutional affairs for Greater Mankato Growth. "If we can get just even a little more glimmer of what's going on in our local economy, what's going on with our businesses, we're happy to help facilitate that process."

On the election side of his job, Simon told area residents his office plans to reach out to as many voters as possible this year, especially given the chance for a greater voter turnout than normal to decide a new U.S. president.

The Secretary of State's Office plans to mail thousands of postcards to newly eligible voters who turn 18 this year, among other things, to reach out to young voters. While Minnesota has traditionally been either at or near the top in terms of statewide voter turnout, only 20 percent of voters age 18-24 went to the polls during the 2014 election.

"When it comes to our youngest voters, we've got a lot of work to do," Simon said.

Simon also spoke to students at Gustavus Adolphus College Thursday afternoon about the upcoming election and precinct caucuses.

Who pays for polls?

It's one thing to register to vote, but Minnesota counties may be hard-pressed to pay for new polling machines over the next few years.

The state's polling equipment was purchased a little more than 10 years ago, after Congress set aside money in 2002 for states to buy new voting machines.

Many of those machines only last 10 to 15 years however, which means Minnesota's equipment is close to its expiration date. What's more, federal officials have signaled Congress won't reassign funds for more polling machines.

Simon convened a working group last year to examine the issue. Thus far, the group hopes to persuade state lawmakers to kick in money for new machines, which would cost about $28 million to upgrade all of Minnesota.

While the group doesn't believe the state would pay the entire cost, Simon said the group hopes Minnesota adopts a funding policy similar to Ohio. The Legislature there recently passed an 85/15 financial split, where counties would only be responsible for 15 percent of the cost it takes to replace their machines.

If lawmakers don't offer aid, counties would have to pick up the bill per state and federal statutes.

"Counties have been put in a very unfair position," Simon said. "The feds bought the last round of equipment, and now the feds are saying, 'You're on your own.' It's not like counties have been saving all these years."

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