Minnesota legislative leaders came to terms Wednesday on a long-delayed plan to use federal election security money that had been tied up in a bitter partisan fight over voter fraud and foreign cyberattacks.
After lawmakers failed to agree earlier on a measure to free more than $6.6 million in federal funds approved by Congress in 2018, the money will now be part of the broader state government funding agreement between Gov. Tim Walz, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, and House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park.
Some GOP lawmakers had sought to limit the funding for cybersecurity in favor of voter fraud measures that have been a central focus of President Donald Trump. Democrats accused Republicans of downplaying the threat of cyber intrusions in state voting systems despite evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 elections.
While backers of the cybersecurity initiative feared it would continue to be held back in end-of-session budget negotiations, Gazelka signaled that Republicans would agree to open the federal money, ending the dispute before a special legislative session later this week to finalize a $48 billion budget for the next two years.
“I promised we would get it done,” Gazelka said. “That’s it.”
Minnesota is the only state yet to use its federal election security allotment, despite warnings of foreign interference attempts on the state’s 2020 elections and a failed attempt by Russian hackers in 2016 to penetrate the state’s election systems.
Secretary of State Steve Simon, who oversees state elections, has long called for access to the full amount. But Senate Republicans were willing to only make $1.5 million immediately available.
Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, a proponent of strong voter ID laws, has voiced skepticism over Simon’s plan for spending the rest of money and recently downplayed the danger of having the state’s election systems hacked. But she acquiesced to the deal Wednesday.
“As a former secretary of state, I understand the threat Minnesota faces when it comes to election cybersecurity,” Kiffmeyer said in a statement. “It was the goal of the Senate to make sure Minnesota uses our [election security] funds and taxpayer dollars in an effective and responsible manner. Now it’s up to the secretary of state to use the money to keep our elections safe and secure.”
The standoff followed Simon’s attempt last year to begin shoring up Minnesota’s statewide voter registration system. It was held up in a government spending package that was ultimately vetoed by then-Gov. Mark Dayton.
A similar dispute has played out in Congress, where Senate Republican leaders have thwarted an election reform package backed by Democrats to make it easier to vote and track money in politics.
Walz said in an interview earlier this week that the federal money was not part of state budget negotiations, adding that he believed the full amount would be freed up by the time he signs off on a final spending plan.
“I want to be careful on this because I’ve stressed it so hard since January 7 when I took office. I have used terms like ‘baffled’ and ‘don’t understand’ time and time again,” Walz said. “I know that Speaker Hortman brought it up [Sunday] and Senator Gazelka agreed in the affirmative that it would get done.”
Other Democrats had expressed concerns earlier this week that GOP negotiators would use the money as leverage in the ongoing budget impasse. “It’s still subject to leverage, which to me is just inexcusable because this should not be part of the negotiation,” said Sen. Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury. “This is just something we should do like 49 other states have done.”
Gazelka again insisted this week that the money would be approved, despite the objections of some in the GOP caucus.
Simon’s proposal emerged from a working group of lawmakers, election officials and cyber experts over the past year. The state House passed a bill freeing the full $6.6 million earlier this session, but the Senate approved only the initial $1.5 million Simon asked for last year. A conference committee aimed at resolving the two chambers’ approaches made no progress before the end of the regular session on Monday.
Simon wants to use $1.5 million to modernize the statewide voter registration system over the next four years and use much of the rest of the money to bolster the state’s cybersecurity efforts. One proposal includes hiring a cyber navigator to provide IT services and work with local election officials. Simon has pointed out that just nine of Minnesota’s 87 counties have full-time employees dedicated to election administration.
“It’s unconscionable that we have held up, that the Senate has held up the state of Minnesota’s and the secretary of state’s money,” said Rep. Michael Nelson, DFL-Brooklyn Center, the House government operations chair. “I’m just thankful it’s going to get done now. This kind of baffled me.”