Minnesota Democrats seek to free up election security funds

Published 5:10 am Friday, February 14, 2020

ST. PAUL — Minnesota House Democrats launched an attempt Thursday to prevent Republicans from blocking Secretary of State Steve Simon from spending $7.4 million in federal election security money, aiming to head off a repeat of partisan maneuvering from last year.

Rep. Mike Freiberg, of Golden Valley, told a state government finance committee that Minnesota is one of only a handful of states that require the Legislature to sign off before elections officials can use federal money provided under the Help America Vote Act. His bill would eliminate the need for legislative approval.

The latest round of federal funding was assigned in December. The federal government allocated Minnesota $6.6 million in the previous round in 2018 after Minnesota and other states’ election systems were targeted by foreign hackers in 2016. The Democratic-controlled House authorized spending it by a wide bipartisan margin last year.

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But GOP Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, of Big Lake, a former secretary of state who chairs a key election committee, was blamed for stalling approval in the Republican-controlled Senate until the end of the 2019 session, despite repeated pleas by House Democratic leaders and Democratic Gov. Tim Walz.

Simon, a Democrat, told the committee that the reasons for the holdup still remain unclear to him. He said he concluded that the money became “trade bait for an end-of-session deal that may or may not have even included elections.” But, he said, the 16-month delay in final clearance put Minnesota’s election security at risk.

“There are things we can’t do for the 2020 election that we could have done had we gotten this money on time,” said Simon, who is using the money mostly for software updates to beef up security for the state’s elections system.

The committee approved the bill on a voice vote and sent it to its next committee stop.

Kiffmeyer said in an interview that she didn’t see any need for the legislation and disputed that there was any holdup last year. She said Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka promised that the money would be released by the end of the session, and it was.

A similar bill introduced in the Senate this week would have to get through Kiffmeyer’s committee.