Minnesota's fight against Russian election hackers gives way to political football

The state only needed to approve two sentences, but they were caught up in the never-ending war between Gov. Dayton and the Republican Legislature.

The state only needed to approve two sentences, but they were caught up in the never-ending war between Gov. Dayton and the Republican Legislature. Associated Press

Hundreds of dreams died with Minnesota’s colossal supplemental budget bill.

The 1,000-page document was a chimera of legislation, relegating which government departments and programs get what funding. It involved a grab bag of issues: responding to the opioid epidemic, tightening school security, combatting elder abuse, and laying down harsher penalties for texting while driving.

But this year, the GOP Legislature larded it up with its favorite stuff. Like requiring tightening scrutiny of welfare beneficiaries, reducing the minimum wage for tipped workers, and allowing schools to display the words “In God We Trust.”

Governor Mark Dayton expressed frustration with the many snapping heads rolled into one bill, point to a whopping 117 of them. GOP leaders pruned or revised more than half of those Dayton found objectionable. Sure, “In God We Trust” stayed in, but they cut out a number of the environmental provisions Dayton called “problematic,” including a repeal of the state’s rice water quality standard.

He vetoed it anyway.

But one of those important measures caught in the crossfire was of particular concern to Secretary of State Steve Simon: keeping Russian hackers away from Minnesota’s elections.

The bill would have given Simon the okay to tap into $1.5 million in federal money, using it to hire c coders and install software and hardware patches. Their job would be to enhance the security of the statewide voter registration system.

You may recall Arizona and Illinois. Both had their registrations systems hacked during the 2016 elections. Up to 200,00 personal voter records were compromised, including names, addresses, and birthdays. Some even included the last four digits of the voters’ Social Security numbers.

Simon begged for the authorization to be a stand-alone bill, not lumped in with hundreds of other items that could drag it down with them. He testified before the Legislature six times. But in the end, elections security went down with the ship.

“Two simple sentences would have authorized my office to tap the federal election cybersecurity funds,” Simon said in a statement. He said legislators took the “riskiest path forward” by throwing it into a bill Dayton repeatedly promised to veto.

Minnesota can still receive $6.6 million through the Help America Vote Act. The bad news is that it can't be touched until the Legislature authorizes it, which won’t be until after the 2018 election.

Simon spokesman Ben Petok says there’s nothing wrong with the system the way it is. Minnesota’s election system was also targeted in 2016, but not breached. It’s just that the system was designed in 2004, ancient by computing standards, meaning its safeguards aren't particularly state-of-the-art. 

Simon pedicts that hackers will hit Minnesota again. He’s trying to “sound the alarm without being alarmist.” But there’s little use in an alarm if nobody does anything when they hear it.