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Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon is pushing to change a primary election law many see as violating voter privacy, and he’s been working with cities and counties to use $14 million in federal dollars to ensure election security.

He met with me Monday at Free Press offices. Here’s what you need to know about these issues.

Voter privacy

The primary law passed after the 2016 election requires voters to pick a Republican or Democratic ballot, and allows all four major political parties in the state (including two pro-marijuana parties) to have access to information on what party individual voters selected. Who they voted for will remain secret.

The law provides no restriction on how parties can use that list of voters. They could put it online or sell it.

Simon said people have contacted his office complaining and he notes Minnesota has never had “party registration.” Local public officials, school superintendents, journalists and others say there is risk in their employers knowing which party they favor.

“They don’t want to wear it on their sleeve,” Simon said. The law was “kind of a back-door party registration.”

Simon supports a bill that he said has bipartisan support (HF 3068) to change the law to 1) Require parties use information only for seeing party participation and it would be only released to a national representative of the party. 2) Classify the data as private, requiring parties to abide by restrictions. 3) Allow voters to opt out of providing party information to political parties.

The bipartisan bill is to have a hearing in the House Thursday evening. Even if the bill doesn’t get passed by the March 3 primary, the opt-out information could be culled because it takes several months to pull all the voting information, Simon said.

GOP Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, chair of the Senate elections committee, said she is willing to look at any legislation, though she was not able to say whether she would consider the bipartisan bill Simon is putting forth because she hasn’t seen any language.

In earlier media reports, she was said to oppose such bills.

But Kiffmeyer, a former secretary of state, also said the national parties are in the driver’s seat on the issue and could choose to deny Minnesota delegates being seated at the national convention.

“It’s a party process. They’re in charge,” she said.

“We want our Minnesota delegates to be seated,” Kiffmeyer said, while she said she would give attention to the privacy issue that it deserves.

She said it’s possible to make sure delegates are seated and voters have some level of privacy.

Election security

The state has so far received $6.6 million in federal funds for election security measures and must match that by 5 percent.

The funding was approved by the federal government in March 2018 but not released by the Senate Republican elections committee until July 2019.

Kiffmeyer held up the fund in the Senate elections committee for reasons that were unclear in media reports. Simon said the delay hampered his office from investing the money in timely security projects.

The state is scheduled to get another $7.4 million from the federal government requiring a state match of 20 percent.

But the money must again be approved by Kiffmeyer’s committee. Simon said 45 other states do not require such state approval.

“I hope we don’t see the unexplained, unhelpful delay. It put us at risk,” Simon said.

Kiffmeyer told The Free Press she didn’t think she “delayed” the money last year but provided “oversight” and said the Legislature has been “very generous” with money for election security.

With the second round of federal funding, she said the committee again will provide oversight and do that in as timely as manner as possible.

The state used the first batch of federal funding to hire a cybersecurity navigator who will work with cities and counties to examine equipment and cybersecurity best practices.

The second batch will be used to get cities and counties new hardware and software and put practices in place to avoid the risk of election breaches.

Federal cybersecurity officials also have camped out for a week at a time testing the state’s system and “trying to find soft spots.”

The federal investigators usually recommend changes, which Simon said are often expensive.

Voter records lawsuit

The Vote for America group more than two years ago filed suit against the secretary of state, calling for making public the names of voters if their registration or vote had somehow ever been “challenged” or they were otherwise not eligible.

Minnesota district courts and the Minnesota appeals court ruled the data was public, but the secretary of state has appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court. Vote for America says it is trying to determine if voter fraud occurred.

By law police are to investigate such cases, Simon said.

He said a bigger threat to election integrity is vulnerable voting infrastructure, calling instances of voter fraud in Minnesota a “handful of people doing wrong” among 5 million voters.

Kiffmeyer said she is “always concerned about election security” and it’s not just about computers, but about people. She had no specific concerns about the upcoming election.

Simon said on overall security he “feels good about where we are” but “can’t guarantee perfection.”

Joe Spear is editor of The Free Press. Contact him at 344-6382, Follow on Twitter @jfspear.

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