Minnesota lawmakers are gearing up for a second round in the debate over using federal election security dollars, even as a major election year looms and state and local officials prepare for possible interference from hackers, foreign entities and purveyors of political disinformation.
The state is able to tap nearly $7.4 million as part of a new batch of federal funding to secure state election systems through the Help America Vote Act. Republicans in the Senate, however, want to link the money to the adoption of a new provisional balloting system, which Democrats oppose.
Under a new GOP bill, election officials must provide provisional ballots to voters who cannot verify their eligibility. That differs from existing law, under which voters are given regular ballots which can be counted unless otherwise successfully challenged.
Republican Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, who authored the bill, said 47 other states have some form of provisional balloting, and she believes it should be part of the broader conversation about election security.
"Too often people think of security as about a computer or about the internet; my statement is 'no.' Security is the whole system," said Kiffmeyer. "Everybody knows that when you do security in a business, wherever you do it, it's the people, it's the process. The equipment, of course, but it's all of that together, so this is part of what I consider the security of the system."
Democrats in control of the House are pushing back, arguing Republicans are trying to use much-needed election security funding as a bargaining chip.
"I think that any time that there are federal funds available to protect voters and protect our elections, to make that a bargaining tool is not a wise thing to do for the safety of our elections," said Rep. Raymond Dehn, DFL-Minneapolis, chairman of an elections committee in the House.
The debate over the federal funding is shaping up to be a repeat of last year, when Democrats in control of the House and the Republican-led Senate spent all session arguing over whether to authorize the first round of election security funding from the federal government. Unlike most states, Minnesota law requires legislators to give approval before the secretary of state can access the funding.
Last year, Kiffmeyer initially wanted to authorize the state to use only $1.5 million of a total $6.6 million that was available from the federal government. But in an end-of-session bargain, legislators finally agreed to let the state tap into the full amount. Minnesota, which was one of 21 states targeted by Russian-affiliated hackers in the 2016 election, was the last state in the nation to start using the security funding.
Dehn said he's worried that handing some voters a provisional ballot instead of a regular one will suppress turnout. He also thinks it would violate the state's same-day voter registration law, which lets voters register at their polling places on Election Day if they can provide proof of residency. Minnesota law also allows an election judge or a voter to challenge another voter's eligibility if they have personal knowledge that a voter isn't eligible to vote.
The debate is part of a broader push for voter verification from Republicans, who have alleged that ineligible voters are casting ballots in state elections. They are also pushing a new law to require a photo ID to vote, which voters rejected as a constitutional amendment in 2012.
Election officials say there's no evidence of widespread voter fraud in Minnesota.
A different bill introduced by House Democrats would short-circuit the perennial debate over election security funding in Minnesota. It would remove the requirement for legislative approval to access the federal election security money.