Simon to lawmakers: Keep voting secure

With just days left in the 2018 session, Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon is asking lawmakers to pass a bill that would allow his office to tap into federal funds for election cyber security.

The funding, passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump nearly two months ago, provided hundreds of millions of dollars in state grants to increase security on election systems. Minnesota’s total share of those funds is nearly $6.6 million, but Simon said his office needs $1.5 million immediately to hire three coders for the next four years to tighten security on state voter registration systems.

Other states were able to immediately use the funding, but Minnesota law requires legislative authorization first. Simon said a House budget bill would authorize the funding, but the proposal is not moving in the Senate.

Lawmakers can't pass bills after midnight Sunday. 

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“I served in the Legislature for 10 years. I have seen many good and popular things wither and die in the last few days of session,” said Simon, a Democrat who previously served in the state House. “But I also know that election security is a top priority.”

Without the federal funds, work will be delayed on cyber security in a major election year in Minnesota, he said. In 2016, Minnesota was one of 21 state election systems that were targeted by Russian hackers. There was no breach, but the hackers are getting smarter, Simon said. 

“Minnesota was not hacked. We stood our ground, we passed the test, we were ready. Our job, though, going forward is to stay one step ahead of the bad guys, and that gets harder every year,” Simon said. “We know that the hackers will be back and they will probably be smarter next time.”

Simon was joined by county officials, who rely on the state’s election systems to administer their own elections and protect voter information.

“They are the agency that houses that network and houses that software where all that vital information is stored,” said Cindy Geis, the Scott County auditor. “It is imperative that we focus on this $1.5 million initially.”

There’s plenty of work left to be done before the legislative deadline. Lawmakers are still trying to work out a deal on a tax conformity plan, a bonding bill and other issues including opioid abuse, elder care and sexual harassment in the workplace.

Simon said he is worried Gov. Mark Dayton will veto the broader funding bill that includes the election security measure because it includes other provisions he opposes. He wants lawmakers to find a safer way to send the proposal to Dayton before session ends.

“Failure to do so this year, this session, is a direct threat to our Democracy,” Simon said. “The clock is ticking, the time is now.”