Faced with real and growing election threats, a Republican Congress and president nearly one year ago provided money for every state in the nation to improve its voting security systems. States, knowing that lost time increased their vulnerability, quickly got to work.
All but Minnesota. Alone among the states, Minnesota’s $6.6 million still languishes in an account — untouched and untouchable. Four states require legislative permission to spend federal money. Inexcusably, only in Minnesota have lawmakers failed to give this technical go-ahead. This year, it appears, the foot-dragging continues, particularly in the Republican-dominated Senate.
“Minnesota now has a target on its back,” said Secretary of State Steve Simon, who has been pleading fruitlessly to be allowed to deploy the funds even as the state falls further and further behind others, making it a more likely point of attack.
There is no other way to put this: The state Senate is the roadblock here, where an elections committee led by Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer continues to drag its feet on the release.
Earlier this year, House and Senate leaders pledged to make release of the federal money an “early win” for this session. This should have been an easy way for parties to come together, since they would be simply passing through funds already dedicated to a sole purpose and guided by federal oversight.
Commendably, the House did just that earlier this week. In a strong show of bipartisan support, representatives voted 105-24 to release all $6.6 million. Several House Republican legislators had participated in the working group Simon convened over the summer, along with House and Senate DFL lawmakers, citizen groups, cities, counties, townships and others, all working to develop the necessary four-year plan for the money. Senate Republican legislators declined to participate, Simon said, sending a staff member instead.
Disappointingly, the Senate has refused to give its consent to full release so far. Instead, senators have peeled off the $1.5 million chunk Simon fought for last year in a bid to avoid seeing all the funds caught up in end-of-session games. It was, in fact, the stated intent of the U.S. Elections Assistance Commission to release the funds early in 2018 specifically to “have an impact on the 2018 election cycle.”
Kiffmeyer, who leads the elections committee, told an editorial writer that she has “many questions” about how the money will be used and insists there is “no need to rush through.” That assessment appears to be strongly at odds with U.S. security officials, who recently briefed Simon and other elections officials on the need to counter the known threats to the 2020 election. There is another clock ticking here. Funds unspent by 2023 will revert to the federal Treasury. Minnesota has lost one of those years.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said in a recent letter to House Speaker Melissa Hortman that he was committed to passing the full amount, “but only after a robust public discussion and vetting of these one-time funds.” That is a test seldom applied to other federal funds received. One must question why Senate Republicans then skipped the five months of discussion in the working group. Gazelka has said the Senate bill is superior because it includes matching funds required by the feds. What he fails to note is that states have two years to provide that $330,000 match. It is not needed in 2019 to begin accessing the funds this year.
There simply is no reason to keep these funds idle any longer. Gazelka told an editorial writer that a few more months — until the session’s scheduled end in May — shouldn’t matter much. But by then, Minnesota will be a full 15 months behind 49 other states. As for oversight, the funds will be subject to federal audits, reports and scrutiny that includes accounting for time in 15-minute increments.
The Senate should drop its artificial hurdles and allow cybersecurity improvements to start without any further delays.