After meeting with Republican critics on Thursday, DFL Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said that he will not "take a step backward" on online voter registration.
"To your request that we take this service away from citizens, we cannot agree," Ritchie wrote to Republican lawmakers.
Last month, Ritchie launched on website that allows Minnesotans to register to vote online.
Since then, Republicans, key Democrats, the state's non-partisan legal staff and legislative auditor have raised questions about why he did it without specific legislative enabling language. He has said he had the authority without lawmakers' sign off thanks to existing Minnesota law.
On Thursday, Ritchie met with Republican Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, and Rep. Tim Sanders, R-Blaine, to talk through some of their concerns.
"There are questions that need to be answered," Hann said afterwards, stressing the need for assurance that the system is secure. He and the other lawmakers said they did not oppose the idea of online registration but wanted to see it done right.
The lawmakers left with the impression that Ritchie would share the internal legal analysis he had done that gave him the assurance that he could create the system without instruction to do so from the Legislature. Ritchie's office has declined to release that analysis thus far and told the Star Tribune that he would not waive attorney-client privilege to release it. On Thursday, Nathan Bowie, Ritchie's spokesman, said that the office continues to maintain it would not release the analysis.
The analysis is key because bipartisan and nonpartisan experts have said the system should be vetted through the Legislature.
This week, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton said he agreed with Ritchie's intent but that the system "should get legislative support."
The issue of online registration was not brought up during this year's legislative session as a bipartisan crew of lawmakers examined -- and ultimately passed -- a series of changes to Minnesota's voting law.
Newman, the Republican Senate lead on election issues, said on Thursday that when he read about the new system last moth: "the first question that went through my mind was where does he get the legal authority to spend tax payer money to create the system and implement the system."
The Republicans also raised the specter of a legal challenge to the online registration system, which could cause trouble in the upcoming local elections if voters registered online and then the online system was found to be invalid.
So far, no one has sued over online registration, although cash-strapped Minnesota Majority on Thursday sent out an email fundraiser asking for donations to fund a potential lawsuit.
Ritchie's letter to lawmakers, after the meeting:
Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie's office, under fire for creating an online voter registration, said he would love to meet with his critics to answer their questions.
In a letter on Tuesday, Ritchie's deputy Beth Fraser proposed four meeting times this week to address Republican lawmakers' concerns about the new system.
Republican lawmakers, joined by the nonpartisan legislative auditor and The DFL chair of the Senate elections committee Katie Sieben, have questioned whether Ritchie had the authority to launch an online registration system and whether the new system is secure.
In her letter, Fraser sought to calm the storm on both fronts.
She wrote the Republican leaders of the House and Senate, as well as the Republican leads on election issues, that the online registration tool is simply a continuation of the state's long pattern.
"Minnesota has had a state-level registration system that counties have accessed remotely since the late 1980s. The system currently in use, the Statewide Voter Registration System, was developed in 2004 by then-Secretary Kiffmeyer," Fraser wrote. Kiffmeyer, ousted from office by Ritchie, is now a Republican state senator. "County election officials have been asking for online voter registration for years now, after seeing the benefits and cost-savings it has provided in other states."
Fraser also said that the office is well aware of security concerns and has tested it to make sure the online system protects private information.
"The new online system is significantly more secure than the paper system," Fraser said.
Read the letter here:
The Minnesota Senate has settled a lawsuit with Michael Brodkorb for $30,000, far less than the former GOP spokesman was seeking.
“I am glad to have this over with,” Brodkorb said Thursday. "This is about putting this matter behind me and allowing me to get my life back and wake up tomorrow with this not on my shoulders."
The Senate Rules Committee will need to approve the payment before it is final.
“We are pleased to have successfully resolved this matter in the best interests of taxpayers and the institution of the Minnesota Senate," said Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook. "This agreement permanently dismisses Mr. Brodkorb’s claims in their entirety while providing the limited severance pay that was offered to him before he commenced litigation against the Senate.”
Brodkorb was fired late in 2011 after then Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch admitted the two were having an affair. Both were married to other people at the time. Koch resigned her leadership position and then the interim head of the GOP caucus ordered Brodkorb be fired.
A longtime political operative, Brodkorb filed a wrongful termination lawsuit seeking $500,000. He argued that he had been treated differently than female staffers caught in similar romantic relationships with elected officials. Brodkorb threatened to bring those other relationships to light to prove his case, which had the potential to creating political and personal problems for current and former legislators.
Over the last couple weeks, Senators and staffers had been deposed in the case.
Former Senate GOP leaders confronted Koch in a secret meeting at the Minneapolis Club and, she has said, gave her a choice: Resign from leadership, or they would expose the affair. GOP leaders in the room that night have said they were merely there to confront Koch about rumors of the relationship and plot a course forward.
With Koch out, then-Secretary of the Senate Cal Ludeman surprised Brodkorb in a restaurant where he was having lunch with a colleague and told him he was fired.
Koch and Brodkorb were widely credited with helping Republicans win control of the Minnesota Senate for the first time in 40 years. After Koch’s fall and Brodkorb’s dismissal, Democrats won back control in 2012 election.
The lawsuit has hung over the Capitol for about a year, with a trial set to begin next summer.
Koch and her husband divorced and she did not run for re-election. After leaving office, she bought a bowling alley in Maple Lake. Brodkorb still lives with his family in Eagan and maintains a political blog.
"This has very hard on my family and I greatly appreciate their support throughout this," Brodkorb said.
With one week to go before the launch of Minnesota’s new health insurance exchange, state officials headed to the Legislature Tuesday to assure skeptical lawmakers that the system is good to go.
But creating a new government agency and a complex computer network in less than a year hasn’t been easy. MNsure has been plagued by glitches and missteps since it was signed into law this spring, raising alarms at the Capitol about its data security practices and decision making.
“A lot of people are unsure about MNsure,” said Rep. Joe Hoppe, R-Chaska, during Tuesday’s hastily organized meeting of the Legislature’s MNsure Oversight Committee.
Earlier this month, an agency employee accidentally emailed the social security numbers of some 1,500 insurance agents to another broker. The breach didn’t involve the database that consumers will use to shop for their health coverage, but it did raise questions at the Capitol about MNsure’s ability to safeguard personal data.
Despite the data security breach and questions about MNsure’s grant process, agency officials told the committee that they have already fielded thousands of calls about enrollment and are on schedule. If they spot a “smoking gun” that warns of serious problems with the system, they said, they would delay the start of the six-month enrollment period.
“Let’s not judge ourselves on the first 100 yards of the marathon,” said MNsure Board Chair Brian Beutner. “MNsure will be open on Oct. 1, delivering the lowest rates in the nation with choices for every Minnesotan for better, more affordable health care insurance.”
The agency is still scrambling to get ready for the launch. None of the insurance brokers or navigators who are supposed to guide the consumers through the online marketplace have completed their training, although many are set to finish up next week.
Republican lawmakers had pointed questions about MNsure's early errors, and so did legislative auditor Jim Nobles, who is conducting a review of the system in the wake of the data breach. MNsure will dip into its own budget to offer credit monitoring to the brokers affected by the data breach, and the offending email was quickly deleted by the recipient. The employee responsible no longer works for MNsure.
Chris Buse, Minnesota’s chief information security officer, said the MNsure marketplace will have “state of the art” data privacy protection. The complex system has to link customers not just to private insurance companies, but to state and federal computer networks as well.
Hoppe and other Republican lawmakers weren’t reassured.
“People are nervous about this. People are nervous about their data…The system is only as tough, only as secure as the people who are using the data,” he said. “We are not leaving the people of the state of Minnesota with a very good feeling about how this is going to work.”
But Senate Health and Human Services Committee Chairman Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, said he was reassured by MNsure’s rapid response to the problems it has encountered so far.
“I am very sorry that this occurred,” said Lourey, who sponsored the Senate version of the legislation that created the MNsure system. “But I am also very glad to see the robust response that happened in a short time afterward – 28 minutes after the initial email took place, the machinery was in place to make sure this was put in a box and treated appropriately. And the machinery is still ongoing today.”
Updated with legislative auditor's plan to investigate and DFL lawmakers plan for hearing
Gov. Mark Dayton on Friday acknowledged the problems with the coming Minnesota health exchange but said the ‘glitches’ should be expected.
“There are going to be mistakes. There're going to be glitches, and there’s going to be human error as there is in any enterprise, particularly a large one like this that’s just getting under way. I think overall they’ve done an admirable job of putting this together under severe time pressure,” Dayton said in answer to questions about the exchange, called MNsure.
MNsure and its administration have come in for blistering criticism this week from a host of sources.
On Tuesday, a Democratic Senate leader said that organizers “blew it” in their outreach to the underinsured African and African-American community. Dayton called that problem a serious mistake about which people were "rightfully indignant." Acknowledging they should have concentrated on outreach to those underinsured populations, MNsure officials allocated another $750,000 in outreach spending.
Then on Friday, the Star Tribune reported that a MNsure staffer inadvertently sent an email containing the names and social security numbers of insurance agents to a broker. The breach, which MnSure officials took steps to fix, renewed fears that the state’s collection of Minnesotans’ health information could create serious privacy violations.
On Friday, two Republican senators asked the legislative panel tasked with MNsure oversight to look into privacy concerns with the system.
"Minnesotans are now justifiably nervous about the security of private data they release to the MNsure systems. We have an obligation to ensure data integrity and allay those fears," wrote Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge, and Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake.
By Friday afternoon, the Democratic chairs of the oversight panel said they planned to call a hearing to discuss the data release.
"We take the reported release of personal data very seriously," Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, and Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, said in a letter.
In reaction to the storm on Friday, Dayton said the data release was serious but attributable to "human error."
“The breach of privacy was a serious violation of their protocol and their procedures and they’ll learn from that and it will make them even stronger in the days following,” the governor said. “I think there are going to be instances of human error and the like that, unfortunately, are going to get all the attention.”
Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles said Friday his office will investigate the MNsure data security practices of MNsure, in the wake of an employee sending the email to a broker’s office that contained Social Security numbers, addresses and names of more than 2,400 people.
“We have many questions and concerns,” Nobles said. “We’re going to go down there next week and really investigate thoroughly what happened, how it happened, why it happened, and what needs to change down there to keep this sort of thing from happening again.”
Nobles said he had long expected there would be data security issues with MNsure, “we just didn’t expect it to happen so soon.”
“A lot of people who know this world have been very concerned, rightly, about the more sophisticated vulnerabilities and risks that exist, both external and internal," he said.
Dayton said he could "absolutely" assure Minnesotans that their information would be "as safe as anything can be."
In his defense of MNsure, the governor also noted that the insurance policy rates that Minnesotans will get using the exchange, which were announced last week, were considerably lower than the proposed rates in other states.
But that too has undergone some criticism. On Friday, Dayton was asked about a contention that the rates were purposely set low to protect Democrats up for re-election next year. The governor quickly dismissed the notion.
"To say the rates were set politically is just untrue and patently absurd," Dayton said.
Earlier this year, the governor signed the health exchange measure into law at the same time he said it was a 'big gamble.' But on Friday, while acknowledging the stumbles, he has also defended the plan to help get Minnesotans affordable health care.
"If opponents succeed in defeating it, destroying it, as they clearly want to do, then were going to be left with a health care system...that's in shambles and it's going to be everybody for themselves," the governor said.