Statewide View: Minnesota can prioritize both election security and voters
Two election issues have dominated public attention lately: election security and voter privacy. Minnesota can prioritize both. Unfortunately, the Minnesota Senate appears hostile to these issues.
On election security, after the 2016 election, Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham said, "Russian hacking during the U.S. presidential election is not a Republican or Democrat issue. It's an American issue. We must stand together." The Department of Homeland Security confirmed Russians targeted Minnesota elections. To protect election integrity, Congress and President Donald Trump funded grants under the Help America Vote Act in spring 2018. The grant to Minnesota was $6.6 million to secure its election systems. But the state Legislature must authorize the use of those funds. Minnesota must use the funds before a strict deadline, so time is of the essence.
The League of Women Voters Minnesota agrees with Sen. Graham. And the Minnesota House of Representatives agreed as well. On March 21, the House authorized the full $6.6 million in a bipartisan, veto-proof vote. We appreciate that both DFL and Republican representatives value election security.
Yet Senate Republicans are not uniting with the rest of us to protect voters from security threats. Earlier this year, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said that authorizing this funding would be an "easy win." But the Senate voted for only $1.5 million and has refused to authorize the remaining funds.
Republican senators claim they need more research on how the funds would be used. But that excuse for delay has no merit. Federal law already defines how the funds may be used. The Election Assistance Commission oversees grant compliance. And Secretary of State Steve Simon convened a working group of stakeholders to develop a plan. Stakeholders included national intelligence officials, local election administrators, cybersecurity experts, and legislators from both parties. Although invited, no Senate Republicans participated. This plan has been in the hands of the Legislature since November 2018.
Secretary Simon presented this plan at legislative hearings for months. Yet Senate Republicans did not ask their questions. Neither have they shown any inclination to compromise. They did not even show up to the two most recent meetings of the conference committee.
On the matter of voter privacy, the media have covered a lawsuit brought by the Minnesota Voters Alliance against the secretary of state for voter data. It demanded access to sensitive information, including when individuals voted and how they registered to vote. The alliance claims it will investigate whether ineligible people are voting. It also claims Minnesota is complicit in allowing voter fraud, a false claim Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, has repeated.
But Minnesota prevents — and punishes — ineligible voting. Each month, Minnesota compares the registration database to lists of ineligible persons. These lists include noncitizens, individuals with felony convictions, and the deceased. This ensures that only living, eligible voters are registered. The law also requires each county attorney to investigate allegations of ineligible voting. The nonpartisan legislative auditor determined last spring that almost all allegations of ineligible voting were unfounded. When there is enough evidence, the law also requires each county attorney to prosecute. So Minnesota double checks that only eligible people vote.
The League of Women Voters Minnesota agrees that election integrity is important. But releasing delicate voter data would only cause our elections to suffer. Publishing sensitive data has been part of a broader attempt to intimidate voters. For example, one group falsely accused voters of multiple felonies, from illegally registering to vote to casting an ineligible ballot.
The group also published sensitive personal data in a report like one that the Minnesota Voters Alliance suggests it would create. Those voters then were harassed viciously and intimidated. Now that group faces a lawsuit for defamation and violations of federal civil rights laws (LULAC of Richmond v. Public Interest Legal Foundation).
Sen. Kiffmeyer called our state elections system being hacked "no big deal." We disagree. Voters deserve protection against sophisticated attacks on our election system. And Minnesota must not allow harassment of voters either. We must secure voter data instead.
We hope senators come to their senses soon.
Michelle Witte is executive director of the League of Women Voters Minnesota (lwvmn.org), which is based in St. Paul. She wrote this for the News Tribune.