Updated 5:15 p.m. | Posted: 6:41 a.m.
Minnesota needs to upgrade its aging computerized voter registration system and take steps to better help county election officials identify people who aren't eligible to vote, the legislative auditor's office recommended Friday.
The recommendations won a strong endorsement from the state's chief election officer, Democratic Secretary of State Steve Simon, who said upgrading the 14-year-old system to protect against outside attacks is "a critical and urgent priority." He said it would take $1.4 million over four years to do the necessary work.
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"I think it is my duty as secretary of state to sounds the alarm without being alarmist," Simon told lawmakers during a hearing to discuss the report.
Simon said Minnesota was one of 21 states targeted by hackers "acting at the behest of the Russian government" during the 2016 election, though he said they succeeded in breaching the systems only in Illinois and Arizona. He said the Department of Homeland Security has warned election officials around the country to "expect more of this and from more sources."
"We have to stay on top of these issues," Simon said. "It's about the security and integrity of our elections and I like to say this is a race with no finish line. There is no tape that you get to cross, there is no end zone where you get to spike the football. You just always, always have to stay ahead of the bad guys."
The auditor's office examined the state's election system and voter registration practices for months, interviewing county election officials and county attorneys who prosecute allegations of voter fraud.
Legislative Auditor James Nobels underscored the difficulty state and county election officials face tracking all the change in the electorate.
"People move. People are placed under guardianship, or are declared incompetent by a court," Nobels said. "People come to this country from somewhere else and then become citizens of the United States. People turn 18. People die. People are convicted of felonies."
The audit did not find widespread problems with the system. County attorneys reported 69 investigations of ineligible voting in the past two years, with most not resulting in convictions, though the auditors acknowledged that figure doesn't catch every instance of people, such as felons, who voted illegally.
Some people want to tighten up registration procedures so it's harder for ineligible voters to cast ballots even if that means some eligible voters get excluded, project manager Carrie Meyerhoff told legislators. She said others want to keep it easy to vote even if that means some people who shouldn't vote do.
The report does not take a position on that debate, Meyerhoff said.
The report said modernizing the statewide database could reduce errors. It recommended that the secretary of state — working with county election officials — consider developing a targeted report that helps counties identify people who haven't voted for several years, then re-register to vote when they aren't eligible and thus slip through the cracks of the current system.
The Statewide Voter Registration System was developed when Republican Mary Kiffmeyer served as secretary of state from 1999 to 2007. Kiffmeyer, who's now a state senator, said she was pleased that the audit found that it has held up well over the years, and she concurred with the need for upgrades.
But Kiffmeyer said after the hearing that she believes the report substantially underestimated the number of felons and other ineligible people who voted illegally. She added the state's practice of allowing voters to register at the polls, without computer checks on their eligibility, is part of the problem.
Minnesota is one of only three states that don't require such voters to cast provisional ballots that could be checked before they're counted, she said.
"If we had provisional ballots, then this issue would basically go away," Kiffmeyer said.
Democratic Rep. Laurie Halvorson, of Eagan, and Sen. Susan Kent, of Woodbury said they hope the auditor's report lends urgency legislation they introduced this week to ensure that the system is secure. It also seeks to reduce errors in the database by authorizing automated registration, such as in situations when people change their name when they get married, instead of requiring them to register anew.
"The level of importance is really high and a very small investment of $1.4 million dollars will give us the upgrades that we need to ensure that we are secure," Halvorson said.
MPR News reporter Mark Zdechlik contributed to this story.