ST. PAUL - Taking federal money to protect Minnesota’s election system was expected to be easier than this.
Minnesota was one of 21 states that computer hackers tried to infiltrate during the 2016 election. State officials said the hackers were not successful, but more robust protections were needed to deter future attempts.
Congress responded by approving $380 million in new grants under the Help America Vote Act to beef up online election security. Minnesota’s share is $6.6 million, but to get that money the state has to commit to spending 5 percent in local funds on security.
Complicating matters, Minnesota is one of a few states that needs legislative approval to accept the federal money.
“Minnesota is the only state without access to these funds,” Secretary of State Steve Simon recently told the Senate finance committee. “The threat is real. It is accelerated from where it was in 2016.”
Simon added that he was given a security clearance in order to receive national briefings about future threats. He said he has learned from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that: “We in the elections world should expect more of these attacks from more sources.”
Last year, lawmakers agreed to give the OK and put up part of the state’s matching portion, but the legislation that the Secretary of State needed to accept the federal money was tied up in a super-sized omnibus spending bill that was vetoed for other reasons.
The issue re-emerged this year before lawmakers even returned to the Capitol. It was one of a few matters that has widespread bipartisan support and was supposed to be passed quickly and sent to Gov. Tim Walz
The federal money to improve Minnesota’s election security remains tied up essentially because the Democratic-led House and GOP-controlled Senate differ on the best way to say “yes.”
Last year, the share of the money Simon was ready to accept was smaller - so was the amount the state had to kick in. After some research, Simon says he’s now ready to use all of the available federal funding.
The House approved a bill Feb. 21 with a bipartisan vote of 105-23 that would accept all the federal money. But it only commits part of the needed match - state leaders have a couple of years to come up with the rest.
Meanwhile, the Senate is debating two different bills. One is almost identical to what was lost to a veto last year while the other would accept all the new money.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka and House Speaker Melissa Hortman traded letters about the election security money earlier this month, but so far neither side has agreed to see it the other’s way.
Last week, Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, said the initial money lawmakers first approved last year was the “most important” piece of the election security grant because it is focused on the voter registration system. That bill is scheduled for a floor debate Monday.
Kiffmeyer, who has served as Secretary of State, is also the chief sponsor of legislation to accept all of the federal funds.
But first Republican leaders want to review how the funds will be spent.
“The Senate is committed to authorizing the full $6.6 million this session, but only after a robust public discussion and vetting regarding the use of these one-time funds,” Gazelka wrote Feb. 15. “Minnesota’s voters deserve nothing less when the security of Minnesota’s election system is on the line.”
It’s unclear how Republican and Democrats will resolve their differences on the election security funds. The most likely scenario is both chambers will pass their versions of the bill and have a joint committee work out the differences.
That won’t make it an early bipartisan win that state leaders were hoping for to kick off the session.