A total of $1.5 million in federal funding has been allotted to the state for the effort, but lawmaker approval is needed before the money can be spent.
(TNS) — 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.”
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.
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.
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.
In Aug. 2016, hackers probed Minnesota’s Statewide Voter Registration System — the heart of the state’s election system that includes a database used to verify who can and cannot vote.
They failed. But “we know they will be back in 2018,” Simon said, referring to the November general election, which will feature the offices of governor, both U.S. Senate seats, and every U.S. and state House seat, as well as the statewide offices of state auditor and secretary of state — Simon’s job. He’s running.
Simon said the plan for the money is simple: hire three computer coders for four years to rewrite certain parts of the voter-registration software, as well as a relatively small amount for new software.
The $6 million SVRS computer system was implemented in 2014. Simon said it’s healthy. It just needs updating, especially in light of the new threats.
“This is not MNLARS,” Simon said Wednesday, a reference to the troubled statewide vehicle tabs and title system run by the Department of Public Safety and MN.IT, the state’s information technology department.
In fact, as a constitutionally dedicated office, the Secretary of State’s office is separate from the other state agencies that are often intertwined with MN.IT, which has been under fire for the failings of MNLARS.
Earlier this year, Siman had asked for $1.4 million from the state’s general fund be spent on the upgrades. However, when Trump signed the federal legislation in March, that meant no state funds would be needed.
©2018 the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.