Are our elections secure? Minnesota's in better shape than most states

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DETROIT LAKES, Minn.—With the CIA and the FBI agreeing that Russia attempted to interfere in the 2016 election to help Donald Trump, many Minnesotans are concerned about protecting the integrity of the state's election system.

They shouldn't be too worried, Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon said Tuesday, Aug. 29, during a visit to Detroit Lakes.

"My biggest surprise about this job is the time, effort and energy that I and the rest of the staff spend on cyber security issues," said Simon, who was elected in 2014. He campaigned on running the office with a Joan Growe-style of excellence, and expected to deal with straightforward issues: expanding access to voting, removing barriers to voting, making business services as streamlined as possible.

"Since the Russia hacking news broke there's been a ton of media interest and community interest (in election cybersecurity)," he said. "Staying a step ahead of the bad guys is hard work—we put together a cybersecurity team in our office and hired an outside contractor."

'It's hard to hack a pen'

In Minnesota, polling places are considered secure, since the state uses paper ballots and does not allow the electronic counting machines to be connected to the Internet during the tabulating process, Simon said.

"The election architecture in Minnesota is old-school," he said. "Take a pen, fill in an oval. It's hard to hack a pen." Minnesota has long had a bipartisan consensus that voting should always include a paper trail, he added. If there is doubt about the integrity of a vote count, election judges can always go back and check the paper ballots.

That's not true everywhere in the United States. Simon said there are 16 or 17 states in which voters use touch-screen machines that create no paper trail whatsoever.

Adding further security to the process in Minnesota, he said, "the reporting system from the counties to our office is an encrypted system. Plus, we have humans who talk to each other—this is the vote total we sent, is that the same total you received? Plus we do election audits."

Minnesota is also protected by a very decentralized system of over 4,000 precincts, all with their own local election judges, many who have served for years and are dedicated to the democratic process. Any conspiracy to rig the vote would have to involve thousands of people, he said.

A bigger concern is that hackers could get access the central voter registration information and cause trouble.

"What if someone goes in and wipes out all the voter registrations? Our backup is same-day voter registration," Simon said. "It would be hectic in the polls, but all 4 million voters could register that day."

Again, Minnesota stands out in that area—Simon said the vast majority of states don't allow same-day registration, "so the stakes are higher."

To test cyber defenses, Simon said his department hired an outside contractor to try to hack into the state's election data. The contractor was unsuccessful. "There were no major issues, but they did have recommendations (for improvements)," he said. Those have been made or are ongoing, he said.

Not all states fared so well. Arizona's system was the victim of a hack in the 2016 election. There was a breech, but no data was released, Simon said. In Illinois, it was worse. "There is evidence that someone got in and was snooping around in voter records," he said.

Homeland Security continues to be involved in trying to improve election security, he said.

"Election systems are now designated as critical infrastructure, like the power grid and military installations," he said. It's partly a warning to foreign powers: "You better watch out," he added. But Homeland Security has also issued a number of best practices to states to maximize their election security.

Plus the states "will now have information to sensitive information we didn't have before—threat assessments and that kind of thing," Simon said.

Show me the money

There's no federal money to help states at this point, but U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota is co-sponsoring a bipartisan amendment to the federal Defense Authorization Bill that would provide funds to beef up election security. It would establish national best practices standards for things like secure election equipment and protecting voter registration rolls, and would help states with money to meet those standards. Simon is working with other secretaries of state to push for the amendment.

And the Minnesota Legislature did come up with some money this year to help replace aging election equipment.

"After two years of work, we got the legislature to come up with millions of dollars for new election equipment for counties and cities," Simon said. If all the equipment in the state were replaced, it would cost about $28 million, but since not all equipment needs to be replaced, the $7 million will provide matching funds of at least 25 percent and perhaps much more to counties and cities, Simon said.

A lot of election equipment in Minnesota was purchased from 2004 to 2006, with federal funds that have since dried up. But elections have to be held, they are not an optional expense, so the Legislature approved the funding to help ease the cost burden on local government, Simon said.