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Minnesota Legislature

Secretary of state promises new safeguards after primary poll finder issue

Secretary of State Steve Simon speaks to the House State Government Finance Division March 4 about an error on the secretary of state’s website during Tuesday’s primary election that redirected visitors to a partisan pollfinder. Photo by Paul Battaglia

For the most part, Minnesota’s presidential primary on Tuesday was a success.

Numbers show excellent participation on both sides of the political spectrum, but that is only part of what Secretary of State Steve Simon said made for “an extraordinary day.”

For 17 minutes in the morning, the office’s online Pollfinder function was inaccessible. The urgent fix made by an employee was a redirected link to a partisan website that contained not only polling place information but also a presidential endorsement — a move not part of the office’s emergency plan. Simon said there were 490 redirects, but noted not everyone went to the other site.

“Full responsibility lies with me and no one else. I’m the head of the office, and to the extent anything goes wrong that is on me,” Simon told the House State Government Finance Division Wednesday.

“We have to have free elections and we have to have fair elections. They can’t be tainted by any view anywhere or any hint or insinuation that anyone in our office is putting a thumb on the scale for any candidate, any cause, any political party. Period. Those of you who know me, those of you who have served with me, know how deadly serious I take that mission in the office. … People are entitled to their political views, but you’ve got to leave that at the door in our office and I think I have the record to prove that.”

Simon said an investigation is ongoing, but no evidence has been found the incident was outside interference or a load issue, only an employee error.

The office has an emergency elections plan in writing, including a specifics on what to do if the Pollfinder function goes down — namely to link to a specific Google-based nonpartisan website the office has worked with to provide updated information, as recently as last Friday.

But, for whatever reason, the plan was not followed.

“This particular employee is a career civil servant,” Simon said. “I have no idea what this person’s politics are. … I don’t know and I don’t care. This was not a political statement on his part or any part, it was a lapse in judgment.” Simon noted the classified employee was among those who solved the issue upon realizing the error; nonetheless, the office is looking into potential discipline available through the collective bargaining agreement.

“This is the type of thing that when humans get involved, mistakes are made. We’re human,” said Rep. Michael Nelson (DFL-Brooklyn Park), the division chair.

“We are stewards of the public trust. That trust was broken yesterday,” said Rep. Tony Albright (R-Prior Lake). “… It’s our job as stewards of that public trust to make sure it never happens again.”

To that end, Simon said two steps have immediately been implemented and more will be coming.

A list will be created of outside, nonpartisan websites eligible to be used if the office needs to direct someone off its website. “It will physically be impossible to [redirect] unless it’s on the so-called whitelist, a preapproved prescreened list,” Simon said.

Multiple people will need to give authorization for a redirect; the person who erred Tuesday will not be eligible.

“I am a little disappointed that some of the things you’re talking about today weren’t in place previously,” said Rep. Jim Nash (R-Waconia).

“Our election system is only as good as the legitimacy that it enjoys,” Simon reiterated. “… I can assure you it will never, ever happen again. I regret those 17 minutes; I’m glad it wasn’t longer than 17 minutes; it’s 17 minutes too many.”

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