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Money to secure Minnesota elections still in limbo

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Voters fill out their primary ballots.
Voters fill out their primary ballots at the Ramsey County Elections Plato Building in St. Paul in August 2018.
Lacey Young | MPR News 2018

As the release of the Mueller report this week made clear, Russia interfered with the 2016 presidential election. In Illinois, Russian hackers made it into the state's voter registration database.

Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, a Democrat, is trying to ward off similar attacks. But he says he needs access to federal money already allocated to Minnesota by the federal government for that specific purpose.

The DFL House has authorized him to use all $6.6 million Congress allowed, while the Republican Senate agreed to just $1.5 million.

Minn. Secretary of State Steve Simon discusses election security issues.
Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon discusses election security issues in his office in March 2018 in St. Paul. A lingering dispute over election security money is just one of several election-related measures facing an uncertain future at the Minnesota Capitol this session.
Steve Karnowski | AP 2018

"We're the only state in the country that has not gotten clearance to use this money," Simon said. "It's being blocked, it's being impeded, it's being limited by the Minnesota Senate right now, for reasons that they won't even articulate."

The Senate allocation matches what Simon requested last session, an amount lost when then-Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed a larger supplemental spending bill. Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, said lawmakers need more time to discuss the additional money.

Kiffmeyer, a former secretary of state who chairs the Senate elections committee, said the one-time federal allocation needs to be used carefully.

"The initial hearing raised more questions than gave answers. So, we're doing a little more research, doing some more investigation, getting more questions answered as we work toward the balance of the $5 million. But the secretary can have the $1.5 million. That can happen in very short order to meet that immediate need." 

Kiffmeyer is also resisting several election law changes favored by House Democrats. The list of DFL-backed proposals includes a restoration of voting rights for felons who've complete jail time and a new system for automatic voter registration.

Kiffmeyer said unlike the DFL-backed House bill, there are no election policy provisions in the Senate budget bill for state government.

"We have already had an election that was run last year under current Minnesota election law policy. The governor got elected, the house got their majority. It seemed to work pretty well for them. I think that Minnesota's current election law is very open as far as access. So, I do not see us accepting any of the proposals in the Democrats' policy bills."

Kiffmeyer is also cool toward proposed adjustments in the 2016 law that sets up a presidential primary in Minnesota. They include a move to keep voters' party-affiliation private. She said the primary is a political party activity.

Simon said he's concern about the primary rules. He views them as a back-door party registration with no option to declare yourself independent or unaffiliated.

"You're going to have to pick a team, pick a side, a red jersey or a blue jersey, that's it. And the side that you pick will stay with you in public records for years and years and years."

Legislation moving in the House would declare the voter information private, with the political parties getting a list of those who voted for their side. 

Lawmakers return from their Easter/Passover break and resume the 2019 session on Tuesday. That leaves just a month before the session adjournment to work out their differences on elections and other issues.

DFL House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler of Golden Valley said the House is moving several pieces of legislation aimed at securing the election system while making it accessible to as many eligible voters as possible. He is not deterred by the lack of similar bills in the Senate.

"This is part of an overall theme this session," he said. "The House is passing a lot of forward-looking, ambitious legislation, and we don't know what if anything the Senate will be willing to do. But we're trying to put as many proposals on the table to create as much room for negotiation and compromise as possible."