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Democrats say Republicans are delaying election security money

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A voter exits a voting booth Tuesday in Ely.
A voter exits a voting booth Tuesday, November 6, 2018 at the Ely Senior Citizens Building in Ely, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Federal money to help upgrade the security of Minnesota's voting system is sitting in a state account but can't be spent by the Minnesota Secretary of State's office until the Legislature approves.

The DFL-controlled House passed a measure Thursday to green light spending $6.6 million that Minnesota received last year through the federal Help America Vote Act. In the Republican-controlled Senate though, it's a different story.

Members of the Senate finance committee Thursday approved a smaller version of the bill. It allocates $1.5 million, the same amount that was lost in last year's vetoed supplemental budget bill.

Rep. Michael Nelson, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said before the House voted 105-23 for the funding measure that there is urgency to authorizing the funds with a presidential primary coming early next year.

"We're the last state to do this," he said. "We're already a year behind. This bill was passed, and the money was sent to us March 23 of last year. So, we're already a year behind getting started on this."

Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, was one of the few to oppose the bill, saying it's lacking in spending oversight.

"I am not going to vote for this bill that affirmatively provides to the agency the ability to spend this money on whatever they want to spend it on when we've got a culture around here and around state government that is so out of whack in its responsibility to the people of Minnesota."

All the voting booths were full at 4:15pm at the Eveleth City Auditorium.
All the voting booths were full at 4:15pm at the Eveleth City Auditorium on November 6, 2018 in Eveleth, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

DFL Secretary of State Steve Simon criticized the Senate for taking longer to act and for not coming through with the full amount.

"It's time for us to invest in democracy and do as Congress and President Trump intended, which is to make all of this money, not some of it, but all of it available to the states."

Simon warned members of the Senate Finance Committee that the lack of action on the full funding hampers his office's work and makes Minnesota a tempting target for election system hackers. He reminded lawmakers that Minnesota was among 21 states targeted by Russian hackers in 2016 and the only state that is not yet using its share of the federal money.

"Every day that we don't get authorization to use all of that money is a day that makes it harder for us to secure our system for 2020. That's a fact," he said.

Minnesota has until spring 2023 to spend the money, according to Simon, and must provide a 5 percent match by 2020.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka insists that he too wants to upgrade the election system and that the full $6.6 million will be authorized this session. But Gazelka said the amount above $1.5 million need further vetting.

"We want to make sure that we have a conversation about how it's being used. Counties want to make sure that they have a piece of that," he said. "That's why I say there's nothing wrong with it going through the process, nothing wrong with having open hearings about it. In the end, it's something that we do need to get done. I'm committed to seeing it gets done."