Our state and our nation are built on the promise of free and fair elections. As control of data and digital information rapidly alter the arc of history, policymakers have a special responsibility to join together across party lines to protect the core feature of our democratic republic, the ballot box, from any outside interference.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security recognized this responsibility when it formally designated our nation's election systems in early 2017 as "critical infrastructure" — just like power plants, airports, military bases and hospitals. The designation came after the 2016 election, during which a foreign government targeted the election systems of 21 states (including Minnesota). The department rightly characterizes the tools we use to protect voting as essential to our national security.
Fortunately, and in part because of rigorous preparation at the Secretary of State's Office from years ago through today, Minnesota's election systems were not breached in 2016. But even though we repelled that attack, the broader threat has not been defeated. We need to do much more to harden our defenses.
Our capability to detect and repel the forces intent on disrupting our elections requires both proper vigilance and resources. Through the Statewide Voter Registration System (SVRS), the Secretary of State's Office maintains a centralized database that serves as the backbone of our election system, enabling the office to provide accurate, up-to-date lists of registered voters to counties and municipalities. SVRS was built well in 2004, but is in need of extensive security upgrades. In March 2018, the federal government allocated $6.6 million to Minnesota for just this purpose, but partisanship at the Minnesota State Capitol left those funds untouchable until at least 2019. This missed opportunity is yet another example of partisan viewpoints taking precedence over doing the right thing.
Defense of our democratic republic should be front of mind for every elected official. Minnesotans sent us to St. Paul because they believe in us to do what is right for the state and its people. We heard from many legislators that they were ready to pass the bills to fund the needs for cybersecurity, but the effort fell victim to partisan squabbles.
Although federal resources are welcome, Minnesota should not have to rely solely on the federal government to protect our elections from attack. In light of clear ongoing threats, we need to act decisively at the state level to fortify our systems, and there are some good bipartisan ideas on the table.
The practical reality is this: If large organizations in the public and private sectors are not making significant investments in cyber security, they're losing the battle. They may not even be in the battle. With that reality in mind, legislation introduced last year would enable the Secretary of State's Office to retain 2 percent of the fees it already collects from business filings, and the office would apply those funds to the maintenance and enhancement of information security. This dedicated source of funding would enable the office to stay a step ahead of evolving cyber threats as attackers become more sophisticated and aggressive. The bill has broad support from both parties and should be a top priority for the Legislature in 2019.
As our election infrastructure continues to be tested, Minnesotans should know that we remain confident in the strength of our systems. Because of good practices currently in place — e-pollbooks, paper balloting and intensive postelection audits — the accuracy of election results in our state is sound. But we need to work hard, and on a bipartisan basis, to enhance the security of our elections and the privacy of voters' data.
We are in a race without a finish line. For every improvement we make, bad actors around the world will adapt their attacks to infiltrate our electoral process. Only by recognizing the fundamental duty to protect the sanctity of the ballot box, and by placing that duty above considerations of politics and party, will we stay ahead of the ever-changing threat.
Steve Simon, a Democrat, is Minnesota secretary of state. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, is a member of the Minnesota House.