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2020 Election: Secretary of State hears Wadena County election needs

Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon visits with Wadena County Auditor/Treasurer Heather Olson Friday at the Wadena County Courthouse. Michael Johnson/Pioneer Journal

Is it too early to be prepared for the 2020 elections, now just 20 months away?

According to, Secretary of State Steve Simon, it may be getting too late for some steps to take place in terms of cybersecurity improvements for the future.

Simon visited with Wadena County Auditor/Treasurer Heather Olson Friday in Wadena to address any concerns she has for the upcoming election season. It also allowed him time to share his activities with the new auditor/treasurer as she plans for a flawless election process.

A top priority of Simon's office is gaining access to $6.6 million in federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) funds, which were allocated to the states last year.

Minnesota is the only state in the nation that has yet to tap any of the funds provided by the federal government. In 2016, Minnesota was one of 21 state election systems that Russians attempted to crack, Simon said. He fears that being the one state that has not been able to access those funds makes it a prime target for those looking to influence the election.

"We needed that money yesterday," Simon said. "Anything that you or your board are able to do, letting legislators know that this is a priority would not only help our office but we think would help your office as well," Simon said to Olson.

"The working group's proposals were submitted to the legislature on Nov. 27, 2018, for review," Simon said in an earlier news release. "While we continue to wait for the Senate to work with Minnesotans to enhance our election security, it is important that all Minnesotans see exactly what the working group proposed. I remain ready — even eager — to answer any of the as yet unasked questions from the Senate majority about how we will spend these federal funds to enhance our election cybersecurity. All they have to do is ask."

Within Simon's 20-point plan are a number of key points, which he brought up Friday. Some of those include funding a cyber navigator. This person could work with each county and local governments to look at what the county is doing in terms of cyber security and how they may be able to improve those systems.

It also includes grant opportunities for local governments to improve election software, hardware, security and accessibility.

Simon spoke to Olson about increased use of mail-in ballots. The state has seen an increase in use and the idea of opening it up to complete mail-in voting was floated.

Olson felt after the snafoo of last October, where two precincts received the wrong ballots in the county, there is still some distrust in that process.

"I think they are very gun shy based on what happened last October," Olson said.

In the state, there are more and more cities and townships that want to go with mail because of the cost savings, Simon said. He also knows that many townships and cities take great pride in their vote site, a place where neighbors gather together on rare occasions.

An area that Simon had concerns about was the Voter Registration System (VRS) database. He said it needs to be recoded and the process, done right, could take four years. Upon receiving the HAVA funds last year, the state had five years to use those funds, making it crunch time to take action. Simon said moving the funds forward is stuck in the state Senate.

Simon shared three election priorities he has before the legislature. They included getting everything on one ballot, full reimbursement to local governments to administer the election and no public disclosure of party selection.

Since recent election changes, the party the voter chooses in the presidential election will be public, Simon said.

"Everywhere I go, people do not like that idea," Simon said. Olson agreed.

"We are a very private state," Olson said. "We have good voter turnout, they do not want to tell you who they voted for. And they shouldn't have to."

"Amen," Simon said in response.

Simon's solution to address any voter concerns about revealing party preference is to make those voter lists exempt from disclosure under the state Data Practices Act. Simon fears that as is, the new rule could deter people from voting.

"I think it would be unwise not to change the law," Simon said. "People are just not going to like that."

Olson's thoughts

Olson did share a few items that she hoped could be addressed before the next go-round.

She was concerned with the cost of the presidential election. She wanted to make sure everything was done properly, but knew that there would be a high cost and strain on her employees to do so.

Olson also had concerns about the postage costs for those that will mail-in. Because of four major parties, Republican, Democrat and two legalize marijuana parties, there will be four ballots sent out, as of right now. Only one of those ballots would have to come back, Simon said

"They won't have to send all of them back," Simon said. You can send them all back, but only one ballot can be filled out. If more than one ballot is filled out, the ballots are spoiled, he added.

Olson also shared a concern about the long receipts that come out of the voting machines, tabulating the number of voters. This receipt typically creates a pile of paper that flows across a hallway in the courthouse. That receipt has to be stored for 22 months, by federal law. It's not a very storage friendly option, Olson said.

Simon said the key is that there is a paper trail that the public can review if they have any question of the election results.

"That's a key thing," Simon said.

Olson said a concern from Joy Weyer, Wadena County election coordinator, was that the county does not have a central count machine. Weyer also apparently mentioned a ballot machine that takes folded ballots, but the ballots would not feed well, leading to delays in results.

Simon said, in 2017, all counties got some funds to help with purchases of equipment. Wadena County used those funds in purchasing the KnowInk poll pads and other voter machines prior to the 2018 election. Simon said about $1 million of the $6.6 million would go to grants to local governments that could use it to buy more election equipment, but not until those HAVA funds come through.

Simon visits each of the 87 counties each year in order to visit with county auditors and election officials. His visit to Wadena County was the sixth stop in the state since the new year.