In the wake of the indisputable confirmation in the Mueller report of “sweeping and systemic” interference in the U.S. 2016 election, Minnesotans should be all the more shocked that Republican state senators on Tuesday skipped a conference committee session dealing with needed election security funds.
This issue should have been a no-brainer. Every other state has accessed the election security funds sent to them by President Donald Trump and a Republican Congress to fortify against cyberattacks. Minnesota’s $6.6 million continues to sit idle, blocked by Senate Republicans who are withholding the pass-through permission needed for Secretary of State Steve Simon to start using those funds. Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, as chair of the state government and elections committee, has stubbornly refused to give the go-ahead, putting up a series of specious reasons. Disappointingly, so far Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka has backed her up.
Kiffmeyer has not, as Simon has, been part of classified briefings given to elections officials around the country by national intelligence on the gravity of threats, the near-certainty of a fresh round of attacks in 2020 and the need for quick action on improved security. Nevertheless, in a recent story by the Star Tribune’s Stephen Montemayor, she dismissed such dangers out of hand: “People are being hacked all the time,” she said. “You’re being hacked all the time, I am. This is no big thing.”
It’s deeply troubling that Kiffmeyer, a former Minnesota secretary of state, appears to hold election security in such little regard. To dismiss potential cyberattacks as “no big thing” is as cavalier as it is cynical. A congressional task force last year found that in 2016 Russia launched an unprecedented attack that “targeted voting systems in at least 21 states and sought to infiltrate the networks of voting equipment vendors, political parties, and at least one local election board.” Minnesota was among those states. Minnesota also surfaced in the Mueller report as one of several battleground states then-Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort discussed with his foreign contacts. Manafort is now serving time in federal prison on conspiracy and other charges.
If Republican senators had shown up on Tuesday, they would have heard testimony from Noah Praetz, the former elections director for Cook County, Ill., recounting the day in 2016 when he started getting e-mails that the statewide voter database system was down. It was weeks before officials learned that the system had been breached by “foreign adversaries,” he said, giving those operatives ample time to gather data. In a state notorious for partisan hardball, Democrats and Republicans came together quickly to develop and implement a plan.
How foolish, then, is the willful behavior of those at the Minnesota Legislature who are treating this as just another bargaining chip instead of the emergency it is? If Kiffmeyer and others want to focus on perceived weaknesses in the voter registration system, they have other avenues for that. This money has been dedicated to defending against cyberattacks that could at worst foul election results and at the very least undermine voters’ trust in the integrity of election results.
Gov. Tim Walz, who has worked to build a relationship with Gazelka and other leaders, warned that he will not compromise on election security. Nor should he. The Star Tribune Editorial Board has repeatedly urged legislative leaders to find common ground, but that does not extend to cynical attempts to use dedicated federal funds to create artificial leverage points.
Gazelka, who also has worked hard to build relationships with DFL leaders, has said he likes to empower his chairs. But he is not well served when a chair ignores credible dangers and makes his entire caucus liable for whatever might happen if this state’s election system were to be compromised.
This is not a partisan issue. Republicans in states across the country have worked hard to protect their states’ security. In Minnesota, House Republicans joined with Democrats in passing full election funds, and the House Republican conferee on Tuesday was there with his colleagues at the appointed time.
With four weeks until adjournment and many big differences to work out, this is the time for both sides to prove they can unify at a bare minimum on protecting Minnesota from foreign attacks on its elections.