BEMIDJI -- Minnesota’s top election official talked shop with some Bemidji High School government students Tuesday.
Secretary of State Steve Simon did a quick Q&A with students in Jeff Aas’ American Government and Politics class about the 2016 election, barriers to voting, and reasons to vote beyond participating in a community or honoring the sacrifices of people who fought for voting rights.
“Those are serious and real and totally legitimate,” Simon said. “I just think we can’t leave it there. We have to add to it. Not ditch that, but add to it, and talk a little bit about how it’s also, in addition to those things, in your self-interest to vote.”
The students there -- most of whom are seniors -- were about to inherit formal political power of their own, Simon said, and he cautioned against refusing to vote out of discouragement or spite.
“You might be tempted to say, ‘I don't want to dignify this with my participation. I don't wanna validate either the system or these candidates or this election with my vote,’ and I get that impulse. It's a natural impulse,” he said. “Don't give into that impulse.”
Aas’ students told Simon their senior class was more politically motivated than younger grades because, they presumed, those students were closed to voting eligibility. Many, including Simon, agreed that the 2016 election was particularly intense and polarizing.
“I think it's fair to say that we had two major party nominees who inspired strong feelings,” Simon said wryly.
“Something like that,” one student quipped.
One student said a trip to President Trump’s inauguration was an eye-opener for her and other delegates, and that it fleshed out some of her earlier civics lessons and understanding of the election process.
Another student said he was disillusioned by the pettiness of some candidates in the ’16 election and the effect of the electoral college. And another said the election made people reluctant to speak out for fear of being shut down, and that fear may extend into the voting booth itself.
“This is a tough nut to crack, and nobody's in a better position than you to figure out how to crack it, how to get people interested and intrigued and engaged, even before they're eligible to vote,” Simon said.
He touted Minnesota’s extensive voter turnout figures, statewide mock election for high schoolers, and initiatives to expand absentee voting. He also stressed how relatively easy it is to register to vote in Minnesota.
Aas said the secretary of state’s visit is another way to get his students thinking and learning about politics. He joked to them that Simon shouldn’t be confused with Rex Tillerson, the U.S. Secretary of State who was ousted earlier that morning.
Simon had similar talks Tuesday at the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe tribal offices, in front of the League of Women Voters in Park Rapids and the Detroit Lakes Regional Chamber of Commerce.
“You can't do this job well by just sitting in an office in St. Paul,” he said. “I have been and want to continue to focus on young people, even those who aren't voters yet, so that we can get good habits started early.”