Minnesota Democrats are aiming to expand election protections and access to the ballot box after an election that featured disinformation and doubt about the results. The bill, with voting rights lawyer and freshman Democrat Rep. Emma Greenman of Minneapolis as chief author, has a host of measures aimed at increasing voter access. The bill includes restoring the right to vote to convicted felons after being released from prison, mailing absentee ballots to voters and boosting the number of ballot drop boxes statewide, among other measures. The legislation would protect election officials from harassment and intimidation, and increase transparency in campaign spending by requiring outside groups to disclose donors. It would also permanently remove the requirement that mail-in ballots be signed by a witness — a measure approved by a judge as part of an agreement last year by Secretary of State Steve Simon to resolve a lawsuit brought by citizens concerned about voting during the pandemic. The legislation has no Republican co-authors; A GOP majority in the Senate lists election integrity — not access — as a priority this legislative session. Those efforts include a bill that would require voters to provide photo identification to register to vote and cast a ballot while reinstating the witness requirement. The bill would establish a free voter identification card for those who lack government-issued photo ID.
Minnesota: Ramsey County judge tosses latest challenge to election results | Stephen Montemayor/Minneapolis Star Tribune
A Ramsey County judge on Friday dismissed a late effort to challenge Minnesota’s election results, dealing the latest in a long line of legal blows to Republican bids across the country to overturn the 2020 vote. Chief District Judge Leonardo Castro sided with attorneys for Secretary of State Steve Simon and four Minnesota Democratic U.S. House members who argued that the challenges were not properly filed and lacked merit. Attorney Susan Shogren Smith, in a series of lawsuits filed on behalf of multiple Minnesota voters, claimed “countless irregularities” in last month’s election but offered no evidence of widespread fraud on a level that would invalidate the results. She also raised questions about voting technology used in six Minnesota counties by Dominion Voting Systems, the target of unfounded claims by President Donald Trump and supporters that the company was part of a vast conspiracy to change votes. Simon has said that Dominion had cleared state and federal certification. Trump, meanwhile, won five of the six counties that used the technology.
Minnesota: Tensions over election outcome on display as Senate panel meets | Stephen Montemayor/Minneapolis Star Tribune
Disinformation and conspiracy theories about this year’s vote are a danger to election workers and democracy itself, Minnesota Secretary of State Simon warned Tuesday at a state Senate hearing called to examine the election’s integrity. With the presidential race’s outcome under continued but unsuccessful legal attack by President Donald Trump and allies, Republican state Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer of Big Lake raised questions about pandemic-driven changes to Minnesota’s voting procedures that have since been the subject of court wrangling. Still, Kiffmeyer, a former secretary of state and frequent critic of Simon, said in a subsequent press release that “so far, claims of widespread fraud have not held up under scrutiny or in the courts.” Simon, a Democrat, used the occasion of the Senate hearing to mount another defense of Minnesota’s election, calling it “a great big success on multiple levels.” The Senate hearing on the outcome of the vote, he said, was “taking place in the middle of a national tidal wave of disinformation, politically inspired lies designed to mislead and manipulate people.” Kiffmeyer, who chairs the Senate’s committee on elections, convened Tuesday’s hearing to probe questions over voting software and tabulation, in addition to the changes to rules governing absentee balloting before the primary and general elections. Kiffmeyer defended posing “reasonable questions” about the state’s election process. She had previously cited “anecdotal reports of irregular election activities” in her initial request to Simon for a report on this year’s elections.
Minnesota State Supreme Court rejects GOP challenge to election results | Stephen Montemayor/Minneapolis Star Tribune
The Minnesota Supreme Court on Friday dismissed a Republican lawsuit to stop certification of Minnesota’s Nov. 3 election results and order a full recount, the latest in a long line of failed legal attempts around the country to challenge the outcome of the 2020 vote. In a five-page order rejecting the case, Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea cited the late filing of the petition — just hours before the state canvassing board met to certify the election’s results on Nov. 24 — and errors in the manner in which the case was brought. Unsuccessful GOP congressional candidate Tyler Kistner, numerous other Minnesota Republicans who lost their elections and members of a breakaway GOP state House caucus were behind the petition. Their challenge took aim at a consent decree agreed to earlier this year by Secretary of State Steve Simon that suspended witness requirements for absentee and mail ballots. The Republican petitioners also challenged the process used in some counties for conducting their postelection reviews. The petitioners argued that they were not unreasonable to wait until hours before the canvassing board meeting because they filed their challenge just days after the final postelection review in Minnesota. But Gildea pointed out that two of their key arguments, including the witness requirement suspension, centered on events that took place months before early voting began on Sept. 18. The witness requirement suspension also survived a state appellate court challenge.
Minnesota panel signs off on election results, says voting system clean | Stephen Montemayor/Minneapolis Star Tribune
Minnesota’s top election officials signed off on the results of this year’s vote on Tuesday, giving the state’s process a clean bill of health even as a group of Republicans filed a last-minute legal challenge. “Our voting equipment is incredibly accurate and the postelection review in front of you proves that,” David Maeda, the state’s director of elections, told members of the five-person state canvassing board led by Secretary of State Steve Simon, which met to make official the outcome of the Nov. 3 vote. Despite unprecedented challenges presented by the pandemic, Maeda reported that a random audit of precincts in all 87 counties failed to show a level of irregularities that would have, by law, triggered a full-county recount anywhere.That’ s never happened since the state began that form of postelection testing in 2006, Maeda added. The certification makes official President-elect Joe Biden’s defeat of President Donald Trump by a wide margin in Minnesota, as well as all results down ballot. Trump’s campaign has waged a broadly unsuccessful campaign to challenge the validity of election results in several key swing states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania — where state officials have also since signed off on their respective election outcomes.
Minnesota GOP claims election ‘abnormalities’ without evidence | Stephen Montemayor/Minneapolis Star Tribune
Election officials on Friday swiftly rejected claims by Minnesota Republican Party Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan that “extreme data abnormalities” might have influenced the state’s Nov. 3 election after her examples proved to be nothing more than instances of high voter turnout. “The bottom line is you can’t just throw out conjecture and guesswork without real evidence,” said Risikat Adesaogun, spokeswoman for the Minnesota Secretary of State’s Office. It was “hard to respond to allegations that are so vague and unformed.” Nonpartisan election officials in Anoka and Wright counties, two main counties cited by Carnahan, said they found nothing that would call into question the integrity or validity of the vote. A Star Tribune analysis of Minnesota election data since 2000, for both presidential and gubernatorial elections, found nothing irregular about this year’s voting trends. Carnahan’s attempt to sow doubt over the outcome of the 2020 election follows a coordinated and frantic final push by President Donald Trump and his allies to nullify its outcome through more than two dozen court challenges in battleground states, with 29 losses or dismissals so far. “We’re just trying to shed light on some of the abnormalities we’ve seen,” Carnahan said Friday night. “And where it goes from there remains to be seen at this point.” Carnahan is comparing only votes for Democrats in certain counties in 2012, 2016 and 2020, omitting turnout data from 2018 when Democrats also swept statewide races on the midterm ballot. Her analysis does not account for overall turnout shifts or whether similar patterns emerged in other parts of the state. In a separate Facebook post, Carnahan said she had been in touch with an attorney for Trump’s campaign before releasing her statement late Thursday.
A federal appeals court on Thursday said Minnesota’s plan to count absentee ballots received after Election Day was illegal, siding with Republicans in the battleground state. In a 2-1 decision, the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals said the deadline extension was an unconstitutional maneuver by the state’s top election official, Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, a Democrat. The appeals court said Minnesota election officials should identify and set aside all absentee ballots received after Nov. 3. “Simply put, the Secretary has no power to override the Minnesota Legislature,” the court’s majority wrote.
Minnesota: At behest of Trump campaign official, Minneapolis police union calls for retired officers to act as ‘eyes and ears’ on Election Day | Libor Jany/Minneapolid Star Tribune
The Minneapolis police union put out a call this week for retired officers to help serve as “eyes and ears” at polling sites in “problem” areas across the city on Election Day, at the request of an attorney for President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign. The request was made by William Willingham, whose e-mail signature identifies him as a senior legal adviser and director of Election Day operations for the Trump campaign. In an e-mail Wednesday morning to Minneapolis Police Federation President Lt. Bob Kroll, Willingham asked the union president about recruiting 20 to 30 former officers to serve as “poll challengers” to work either a four- or eight-hour shift in a “problem area.” “Poll Challengers do not ‘stop’ people, per se, but act as our eyes and ears in the field and call our hotline to document fraud,” the e-mail read. “We don’t necessarily want our Poll Challengers to look intimidating, they cannot carry a weapon in the polls due to state law. … We just want people who won’t be afraid in rough neighborhoods or intimidating situations.” Kroll then passed on the request to federation members, saying “Please share, and e-mail me if you are willing to assist,” according to a copy obtained by the Star Tribune.
A Minnesota Republican candidate’s bid to delay voting in his congressional race to February after the death of a third-party candidate was rejected Tuesday at the Supreme Court. Justice Neil Gorsuch, who handles emergency requests from the federal appeals court that oversees Minnesota, denied the request from Tyler Kistner. As is typical when the court acts on an emergency basis, Gorsuch did not say anything in denying the request. But he also didn’t ask Kistner’s opponent to respond in writing or refer the question to the full court, suggesting it wasn’t a close question. Kistner is running against Democrat Angie Craig, the incumbent, in the Nov. 3 race for Minnesota’s competitive 2nd District, which stretches south from St. Paul’s suburbs. “It’s unfortunate that Angie Craig is continuing to silence and disenfranchise thousands of her own constituents,” Kistner said in a statement. Craig said Kistner’s case has been before three different courts, and each court rejected it.
Minnesota Attorney General Ellison wins assurance Atlas Aegis will not recruit or provide private security for elections | Red Lake Nation News
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison announced today that his office has won a written assurance from Tennessee-based security company Atlas Aegis that it is not recruiting and will not recruit or provide private security at or near polling places in Minnesota in conjunction with the November 3 election. The company admits that its statements that it was doing so are incorrect. Attorney General Ellison announced on October 20 that his office had launched an investigation into Atlas Aegis.As part of the settlement, Atlas Aegis agrees not to provide any security services in Minnesota around the November 3 election; not to intimidate any voters in Minnesota; and to communicate through its channels that it was wrong to suggest it was recruiting security for “protection of election polls” in Minnesota. “Minnesotans should expect that our elections will run as safely, smoothly, and securely as they always have. One of the reasons is that my office and our partners are actively enforcing our laws against threatening, frightening, or intimidating voters,” Attorney General Ellison said. “I’m holding Atlas Aegis to account for their misstatements about recruiting security for polling places in Minnesota that potentially frightened Minnesota voters. They won’t be doing it again and will not be anywhere in Minnesota before, during, or after Election Day.”
Minnesota: Calls for armed guards, ‘Army for Trump’ cause alarm | Stephen Montemayor/ Minneapolis StarTribune
Calls for armed military veterans combined with a volunteer “Army for Trump” to descend on Minnesota polling places have created fresh anxieties for state law enforcement and elections officials already preparing for a major election in the COVID-19 pandemic. Cybersecurity and the coronavirus pandemic dominated preparations for the vote this year, but state and federal officials are now closely monitoring new reports of private security contractors advertising jobs that would — illegally — dispatch armed guards at Minnesota polling places. Adding to those concerns, the Trump campaign has vowed to raise a 50,000-plus army of volunteer observers across an array of battleground states to monitor the voting. Raising fears of elections he says will be rigged, President Donald Trump, trailing in polls in Minnesota and other key battleground states, has called on his supporters to “go into the polls and watch very carefully, because that’s what has to happen.”Minnesota GOP officials say roughly 3,000 people have signed up so far and will get training on state election laws, which forbid campaign workers to interact directly with voters. “The actual running of the election is coming along OK but that doesn’t mean that some of the reporting and messaging and things that have come out have not been alarming,” said Attorney General Keith Ellison, adding that he believes the prospect of armed guards at the polls could be a voter suppression tactic.
Minnesota: Secretary of State Simon waives witness rule for primary absentee ballots | Tim Pugmire/MPR
Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon is waiving the state’s absentee voting witness requirement for the August 11 primary election. Simon, a Democrat, made the call after a district court judge signed off last week on a proposed settlement for a lawsuit challenging the rule. However, a federal judge hearing a similar but separate lawsuit this week did not accept the agreement. Early voting for the primary begins Friday. Simon said he will follow the state court. “The ruling yesterday does not affect last week’s primary state court ruling that this arrangement and this settlement agreement is fair, it’s adequate, it’s reasonable, it’s in the public interest,” Simon said. “We’re bound by that ruling. We can’t choose not to abide by the ruling.”
Minnesota: Secretary of State says state will waive mail-in ballot witness requirement | Jessie Van Berke/Minneapolis Star Tribune
Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon’s office said Tuesday that the state will waive the witness requirement for absentee ballots in the August primaries despite a federal judge’s misgivings about a consent decree easing the rules for mail-in voting. Simon’s office said he will follow a state court decision from a week ago that approved an agreement removing the witness requirement, a move that was sought in a lawsuit filed by the Minnesota Alliance for Retired Americans Educational Fund. Early voting in the August primary begins Friday. But in a separate case brought by the League of Women Voters of Minnesota, a federal judge said Tuesday that a similar agreement went “well beyond” the concerns raised by a voter who said her health could be jeopardized by having to meet the witness requirement to vote during the coronavirus pandemic. U.S. District Judge Eric Tostrud called for a more narrowly tailored agreement to remedy specific harms cited by the league’s lawsuit. Despite Tostrud’s opinion, Simon, a leading DFL proponent of mail-in voting, said his office will continue to waive the witness requirement in accordance with a decision signed last week by Ramsey County District Judge Sara Grewing.
Minnesota: Minnesota waives absentee ballot witness signature mandate | Steve Karnowski/Associated Press
Minnesota will waive its witness requirements for absentee ballots for the statewide primary election in August under the settlement of two lawsuits sparked by the health threat from the coronavirus pandemic. The lawsuits were filed by political arms of the League of Women Voters of Minnesota and the Minnesota Alliance for Retired Americans. A Ramsey County judge signed off on the consent decree with the retirees Wednesday while a federal judge scheduled a hearing for Thursday on the league’s case. Republican lawmakers complained that Democratic Secretary of State Steve Simon overstepped his authority by settling. “The lawsuits and agreements are a flagrant abuse of the courts and complete runaround of the Legislature,” they said in a statement. Under the settlements, Simon agreed that mailed-in absentee ballots for the primary will be accepted even if they don’t have witness signatures, and that ballots received within two days of the Aug. 11 primary date will be accepted as long as they’re postmarked by Election Day. Minnesota usually requires that the witness be a registered voter or notary public.
Minnesota: ACLU, NAACP lawsuit: Amid pandemic, mail absentee ballots to all voters | Kirsti Marohn/MPR
The American Civil Liberties Union is suing the Minnesota secretary of state, asking that absentee ballots be mailed to every registered voter due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the NAACP and two elderly Minnesota voters who live alone and have health conditions. It contends that voting in person would put the women at risk for exposure to the coronavirus. So would voting by absentee ballot, because Minnesota law requires a witness. “They recognize the threat, and so for them having to go to the polls or even having to get a witness to sign the absentee voting ballot envelope puts their health at an undue risk,” said David McKinney, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Minnesota. The lawsuit asks the court to suspend the witness requirement and mail absentee ballots to every registered voter in Minnesota for the August primary and November general election.
Minnesota: Protest goes online in Minneapolis as city, police websites hit by cyberattacks | Joseph Marks/The Washington Post
The clash is now online in Minneapolis. Cyberattacks struck city government and law enforcement computers as mass anger over the killing of George Floyd, a black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into his neck, led to major protests there. The operation, known as a denial of service attack, rendered websites for Minneapolis police and some city agencies inaccessible for hours by overwhelming them with a flood of web traffic. A similar attack struck state computer systems but was less effective. The attacks demonstrate how hacker activists who are willing to skirt the law can frequently amplify protests against police and government. The sometimes-violent protests and clashes with police led to thousands of arrests in cities across the nation, including Washington and Atlanta. “When a police website goes down, that’s flashy and it communicates something emotional,” M.R. Sauter, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland who wrote a 2014 book about denial of service attacks and digital activism, told me. “This is a type of protest theater, which is what a lot of street [protest] actions are. It’s just online.” Sauter acknowledged that while some digital activism can go too far – and end up limiting the free flow of information to the public or impede police work – the Minneapolis attack was more acceptable because it communicated public anger at the police and local officials without seriously endangering anyone.
Minnesota: League of Women Voters challenges absentee voting witness rule | By Stephen Montemayor/Minneapolis Star Tribune
Minnesota’s witness requirement for absentee ballots faces a second legal challenge in a lawsuit filed Tuesday by the League of Women Voters asking a judge to let voters concerned about COVID-19 cast absentee ballots without witness signatures. The lawsuit, filed against Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, follows a similar state court lawsuit filed last week by the Minnesota Alliance for Retired Americans Educational Fund. Both cases come as Simon and other state election officials race to prepare for an expected surge in absentee voting this year. “Minnesota consistently has the highest voter turnout in the nation, with many safeguards in place to ensure election integrity,” said Michelle Witte, executive director at the League of Women Voters Minnesota. “Making this small change to our witness requirements during this global pandemic will not damage that integrity — it will only make our elections stronger by ensuring that all voters have as few barriers as possible to exercise their constitutional right.”
Minnesota: Governor considers ‘next steps’ to increase mail-in voting in Minnesota | Stephen Montemayor/Star Tribune
Gov. Tim Walz on Tuesday said he favors conducting Minnesota’s elections primarily by mail after a proposal to expand mail-in voting during the pandemic was struck from a $17 million elections package state lawmakers sent to his desk this week. The legislation the DFL governor signed Tuesday represents a setback for Democrats in Washington and Minnesota who had sought to expand voting by mail during the COVID-19 emergency and into the 2020 elections. But Walz indicated he is looking at other options to make it easier to vote by mail. “The Governor supports universal mail-in voting, especially during this pandemic and considering a second wave of COVID-19 could hit this fall ahead of the November election,” said Teddy Tschann, the governor’s press secretary. “He is considering next steps in how to ensure Minnesotans are safely able to exercise their right to vote.” Executive action by the governor likely became the only way that the state’s Aug. 11 and Nov. 3 elections could be conducted by mail-in balloting after a proposal championed by DFL lawmakers and Secretary of State Steve Simon was dropped from the bill funding statewide elections.
A group of older Minnesota voters is suing the secretary of state over concerns that the state’s absentee voting rules could put their vote — and their health — at risk this year. Part of a broader movement to change absentee rules across at least five states, the Minnesota challenge argues that many older voters who are self-quarantining to avoid contracting the COVID-19 virus won’t be able to get the required witness signatures on their mail-in ballots. The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in Ramsey County District Court by the Minnesota Alliance for Retired Americans Educational Fund, looks to stop the state from enforcing that requirement and also to adopt a postmark deadline on mail-in ballots. State law requires absentee ballots to be hand-delivered to county elections offices by 3 p.m. on Election Day or received by mail by 8 p.m. in order to be counted. Anticipating a dramatic uptick in mail voting because of an expected spike this fall in COVID-19 cases, the plaintiffs worry a cash-strapped U.S. Postal Service may not be able to deliver such ballots in time. Secretary of State Steve Simon’s office declined to comment on the litigation.
The Minnesota Senate has approved election changes meant to provide extra safety during the coronavirus pandemic, but the bill stops short of expanding voting by mail. The Senate voted 66-1 Thursday to follow the House lead in approving the election bill, although minor changes mean it needs one more vote in the House before it goes to the desk of Gov. Tim Walz. The bill permits candidates to file electronically, extends the counting period for absentee ballots and releases $17 million in federal election money. Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, said her bill also provides more flexibility around polling place locations. “The ability to relocate polling places away from sites that might not be safe for those who are vulnerable, in particular nursing homes, assisted living, congregate living-type situations,” she said. Authorities would have had to make any location changes by the start of this year under current law. While some had called for an expansion of vote by mail in light of the coronavirus pandemic, Minnesota law already allows people to use absentee ballots for any reason if they don’t want to vote in person.
Minnesota’s top election official said Thursday that the 2020 elections in the state “must go on” in Minnesota, even if the country is still grappling with the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. In a video statement, Secretary of State Steve Simon said his office is planning for a number of possibilities looking ahead toward November. “Whatever option we use, we’ll do this thoughtfully and carefully,” he said. “No one should have to choose between their health and their right to vote.” One option under consideration is an all-mail balloting system. In this scenario, each registered voter would be mailed a ballot, which would be filled out at home and returned by mail. Other states, such as Oregon, already do this. “I’m looking to [those states], and their leaders, right now to figure out what components of that system to bring to Minnesota,” Simon said.
Minnesota: Lawmakers question election security funding after Minnesota poll finder error | Stephen Montemayor/Minneapolis Star Tribune
Some GOP lawmakers are questioning a new round of federal election security money after an employee error caused the Minnesota Secretary of State’s online poll finder to link to a partisan liberal website on Super Tuesday. Republican state lawmakers sharply rebuked Secretary of State Steve Simon, a Democrat, for what he called a “lapse in judgment” by an IT worker who linked the state’s overloaded poll finder tool to a BoldProgressives.org web page. The link was active for 17 minutes on Tuesday before the office removed it. “How can an employee just redirect and get into IT and do all of this?” said state Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, a Big Lake Republican and former secretary of state, speaking at a Tuesday hearing in her Senate state government and elections committee. “It’s a very concerning issue, especially in this time of security — and ample money was given already in May of last year.” Kiffmeyer engaged in a monthslong standoff last year with Simon over $6.6 million in federal election security money approved by Congress. Minnesota law requires the Legislature to sign off on the funding before it reaches Simon’s office.
The Republican-sponsored bill for a provisional ballot system is tied to a measure unlocking more federal funding to enhance election security. The Senate State Government Finance and Policy and Elections Committee advanced it Tuesday on a 6-3 party-line vote. The rules would apply to anyone who registers at the polls. Their ballots would be kept out of counts until additional eligibility and residency verification checks are done within a week of an election. Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, said it’s an election-integrity safeguard. “Once the ballot is in the box, it’s like pouring two cups of water together — one has toxins in it and the other doesn’t. You can’t separate that water again,” he said. “The same thing goes here.” Democrats argued it would impose new voting obstacles — and could tie up legitimate votes — when there isn’t widespread evidence of ineligible people casting ballots. “If a person were to swear erroneously and after the fact be found out that it was a lie, they have a felony. They have a felony,” said Sen. Carolyn Laine, DFL-Columbia Heights. “This is not done light-heartedly. And as we know in the state of Minnesota it is rarely done and usually by mistake.”
Minnesota: Key GOP senator revives fight over election security money | Steve Karnowski/Associated Press
An influential Senate Republican who held up federal election security funding for most of the 2019 legislative session moved Tuesday to tie approval of a new round of money to passing her proposal for a provisional balloting system that Democrats warn could suppress turnout. Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, of Big Lake, who chairs the Senate’s elections committee, wants to require that the ballots of citizens who register at the polls on election day be designated as provisional ballots that aren’t counted until their eligibility can be verified. Currently, ballots of Minnesotans who register at the polls are counted along with all the other votes. The committee approved her bill on a 6-3 party-line vote and sent it to its next committee stop. At a news conference ahead of the hearing, Kiffmeyer, a former secretary of state, framed the issue as one of equal treatment of voters. She pointed out that applications from residents who pre-register undergo more verification before voting than people who register at the polls. Minnesotans who register at the polls need only to present identification, such as a driver’s license, and their information is verified later.
Minnesota: From disinformation to hackers, new ‘cybernavigator’ racing to protect Minnesota’s 2020 elections | Stephen Montemayor/Minneapolis Star Tribune
Bill Ekblad spent nearly three decades as a naval cryptologist, working from ships and planes stationed in the Middle East and Germany to fight cyberattacks coming from around the world. Now, the Minnesota native is back home and facing a uniquely tall order. Ekblad is the state’s first “cybernavigator,” hired by the secretary of state’s office to help local election workers guard against an increasingly expanding set of threats, from disinformation campaigns to foreign actors trying to penetrate election networks. “It’s a tale of surprises: I mean, I think that nobody really saw realistically the potential for foreign adversaries to meddle in elections prior to 2016,” Ekblad said in an interview from his office near the State Capitol. “And then in 2018, the game changed. It became less about the hard computer network operations and more about the soft skills of influence and hacking the mind of the voter.” Ekblad, hired through a federal election security grant, is now drawing on that history to pose a new question to the scores of local officials in Minnesota’s 87 counties who are in charge of running this year’s elections: “Why do we think 2020 will be something predictable?”
Minnesota House Democrats launched an attempt Thursday to prevent Republicans from blocking Secretary of State Steve Simon from spending $7.4 million in federal election security money, aiming to head off a repeat of partisan maneuvering from last year. Rep. Mike Freiberg, of Golden Valley, told a state government finance committee that Minnesota is one of only a handful of states that require the Legislature to sign off before elections officials can use federal money provided under the Help America Vote Act. His bill would eliminate the need for legislative approval. The latest round of federal funding was assigned in December. The federal government allocated Minnesota $6.6 million in the previous round in 2018 after Minnesota and other states’ election systems were targeted by foreign hackers in 2016. The Democratic-controlled House authorized spending it by a wide bipartisan margin last year.
Minnesota: New Primary System Brings Data-Sharing Concerns | Briana Bierschbach/Minneapolis Star Tribune
Sean Fahnhorst works behind the scenes for the state of Minnesota preparing the state budget based on the preferences of his boss — the governor. He likes his gig and wants to do similar work indefinitely, no matter who’s in charge. That’s why he’s hesitant to participate in the state’s new presidential primary election on March 3, which technically kicks off Friday with the start of early absentee voting. It’s the first primary in the state in nearly 30 years, a switch made after high turnout in 2016 bogged down the party-run caucus system with long lines and confusing rules that frustrated voters. Minnesota’s new presidential primary system, run and paid for by the state, is expected to be logistically smoother. But for many voters like Fahnhorst, there’s a big trade-off. The new system also records voters’ party preference and provides that data to the chairs of each major political party.
Minnesota: Guard’s coders, hackers may help shore up election defenses | Stephen Montemayor/Minneapolis Star Tribune
Minnesota election officials working to beef up the state’s cyber defenses against hackers now want to call in the National Guard. In an effort to protect the 2020 election just months before early primary voting starts, Secretary of State Steve Simon said he wants to formalize a long-term agreement to work with a new “cyber protection team” developed by the Minnesota National Guard ahead of a workshop planned this week in St. Paul as part of a national “policy academy” on election security. The gathering of federal and state officials comes as Congress deepens its impeachment inquiry over a whistleblower allegation that President Donald Trump solicited Ukrainian help in undermining former Vice President Joe Biden, one of his top Democratic challengers in 2020. But a more pressing concern for local and state election officials is the prospect of foreign hacking and social media disinformation. Simon and other state election officials have warned that more foreign sources are likely to try to penetrate states’ election systems than in 2016, adding that there are already signs of widespread online disinformation campaigns underway. “This is a security issue,” Simon said. “It isn’t just about bullets or boots on the ground, it’s about this cyber realm and the fact that adversaries try to expose or exploit weaknesses in the cyber world just as they would in other areas as well.”
Minnesota: New info about election hacks raises the alarm in Minnesota | Stephen Montemayor/Minneapolis Star Tribune
New revelations that all 50 states had their voting systems targeted by Russians in 2016 and that more foreign actors are waging online disinformation campaigns are adding fresh urgency to state efforts to safeguard the 2020 vote. “The stakes are very high and I feel that every day,” said Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, who met last week with state officials tasked with reviewing election security strategies before absentee primary voting starts in January. “No secretary of state can guarantee success. What we can guarantee is that we will try to minimize risks. But we’re in a fight here apparently with nation states.” Special Counsel Robert Mueller warned Congress last week that Russia’s “sweeping and systematic” campaign to disrupt the 2016 election was not a mere one-off attempt: “They’re doing it as we sit here, and they expect to do it during the next campaign.” Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee concluded that Russia went after voting systems in all 50 states in 2016. Federal law enforcement and intelligence assessments previously disclosed that 21 states, including Minnesota, had been targeted. Though no votes were determined to have been affected, the committee’s report surmised that Moscow may have tried to probe vulnerabilities in state systems to exploit later or try to undermine confidence in the election.
It took more wrangling with lawmakers than expected, but the state’s chief election official now has access to $6.6 million in federal funds to implement his plan for warding off hackers and potential cyberattacks. “We were the very last state to get that money,” said Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon. Minnesota received its share of the federal election security money from the Help America Vote Act over a year ago. But political maneuvering at the State Capitol delayed the authorization Simon needed to put the money to use. He didn’t get it until last month’s special session. “It still puts us behind other states,” Simon said. “Every other state not only had it but had it some time ago in time for the last election. So, we are behind, but we can now use that money.” Simon said most of the money will go toward short-term projects that can be done ahead of the presidential primary next March. The rest will go toward a four-year project to modernize the state’s voter registration system. With the help of cybersecurity experts, local election officials and legislators, Simon put together a detailed plan months ago for spending the money.