I Want To Go To There: MN SoS Tries to Shake Loose Election Funding From Legislative Impasse

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Election officials across the country were understandably encouraged by Congressional approval of $380 million in cybersecurity funding – but in Minnesota, the Secretary of State has had to resort to a public plea for state legislators to move the money out from under the seemingly annual impasse of a state funding bill. TwinCities.com has more:

Minnesota’s top election official on Wednesday publicly pleaded with lawmakers to give him permission to spend $1.5 million in federal funds to protect the state’s voter software from Russian hackers and anyone else trying to muck things up  this election year.

“I have tried to sound the alarm without being alarmist,” Secretary of State Steve Simon said Wednesday. “I am today again sounding the alarm. We need these funds.”

Simon just needs the Legislature’s permission to spend it. He said Minnesota is one of the few states where such permission is required. Simon is a Democrat and both the state Senate and House are controlled by Republicans, but he said there’s bipartisan support.

To hear Simon tell it, it should be a no-brainer: The money — all federal funds — has already been approved by Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump as part of a nationwide effort to beef up election cyber security in the wake of 2016 attempts to infiltrate a number of states by hackers tied to the Russian government.

In fact, the permission is included in a massive “omnibus bill,” which is in its final stages before being sent to Gov. Mark Dayton. But that bill faces a strong possibility of a veto by Dayton, a Democrat — not for the election funding, but for any of a number of unrelated controversial provisions.

The risk, said Simon, himself a former lawmaker, is the mayhem of the final days of any legislative session. “I’ve seen many good things wither and die” in the final days, he said, noting the Legislature will adjourn Monday.

There are other ways the plan could be approved in the final days of the session, but things get complicated, and it’s unclear how on-the-radar the issue is among legislative leaders. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, on Wednesday would not commit to pushing the measure outside of the large omnibus bill.

Simon’s own statement explains the problem:

Nearly two months ago, President Trump signed into law the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018, which provided $380 million in Election Security Fund grants to the states, authorized under the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002. Minnesota’s share of those funds is $6,595,610.

Most secretaries of state throughout the U.S. will enjoy immediate access to these funds. However, unlike virtually all other states, Minnesota law requires the additional step of a legislative allocation of those funds from Minnesota’s HAVA account to the Office of the Secretary of State. Failure to do so by the end of this year’s legislative session would leave the funds sitting in the HAVA account, untapped, which would slow down needed improvements of Minnesota’s election security…

The allocation provision is currently embedded in the controversial omnibus spending bill, a measure that Governor Dayton has vowed to veto for many reasons unrelated to cybersecurity funding. As a result, some other legislative path is urgently needed to guarantee access to federal funds. So far, the legislature has declined to take another path for the provision.

“If bi-partisan congressional majorities and President Trump can come together around funds for election cyber defense, surely Minnesota’s elected leaders can do the same,” added Secretary Simon. “The legislature can vote today to send a clean bill to the Governor, which he has said he will sign. Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate support our use of these federal funds. And yet, there’s a very real possibility that this opportunity for cybersecurity improvements could die this year. That would make absolutely no sense. We have a plan to use these funds but need the legislature to act in good faith and send a clean bill to the Governor. Failure to do so is a direct threat to our democracy.”

Local officials are joining in the call:

“The key to ensuring democracy in our country is to guarantee the safety and protection of our elections infrastructure,” said Scott County Auditor and Chair of the Minnesota Association of County Officers Legislative Committee, Cindy Geis. “The Minnesota Association of County Officers and the Minnesota Secretary of State’s Office have worked collaboratively to uphold and advance the technologies necessary to assure the voters of our great state that attacks on our systems are prevented. The Help America Vote Act provides financial resources to Minnesota to assist in the cost of this protection from and prevention of cyber intrusions. We look to enhance our systems today with the almost seven million dollars that was awarded to our state, and will continue to work as a cohesive unit for other opportunities that will guarantee and uphold the integrity of the elections process.”

Minnesota’s situation is a reminder that state laws and procedures (plus inevitable legislative partisan battles) mean that Congressional approval isn’t usually the last step necessary for election funds to reach state and local officials. The money is there, and election officials want and need it – but they can’t … quite … get it.

As a result, like 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon, all they can do is say “I want to go to there” – and they are, loudly. [UPDATE: Florida wants to go to there, too.] Will it work before the legislature adjourns? Stay tuned…

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