Crow Wing County locks its voting supplies in a hardened, fireproof vault that’s off limits to all but a few staffers. Electronic gear is tested in public before elections. The central Minnesota county, like the rest of the state, uses paper ballots so every vote can be verified. An encrypted system conveys results to the Secretary of State’s Office. Postelection audits are routine.
Those precautions don’t prevent Deborah Erickson, the county’s administrative services director, from worrying about Russian attacks on this year’s elections. If voters’ trust is undermined, she said, “the foundation of our whole democratic system” is at risk.
There is cause for concern. On Aug. 19, 2016, Minnesota’s election system was scanned by entities acting at the behest of Russia’s government. Twenty other states’ systems also were scanned, though only Illinois’ was hacked. U.S. intelligence agencies have warned that Russians already are trying to disrupt upcoming elections. National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers said Tuesday that he has not been directed by President Donald Trump to confront such meddling.
“[Vladimir] Putin has clearly come to the conclusion that there’s little price to pay here and therefore I can continue this activity,” Rogers said in congressional testimony.
Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program, compared the 2016 Russian scanning of state systems to a thief peering into a home’s windows but not being able to break in. “When they come back they will have more information,” he said. “Did the Russians learn stuff from their efforts … that would make it easier for them to create problems in 2018 or 2020?”
Minnesota is among states assuming the answer to that question is yes, so it is shoring up cyberdefenses. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., has sponsored a bill that would provide $400 million in grants for voting system improvements nationally.
In January, Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon awarded $7 million to counties and cities for the purchase of new voting equipment. He has asked the Legislature for $87,000 in 2019 to upgrade cybersecurity with new hardware, software and staff. He also wants $294,000 to begin modernizing the voter registration system, which has been in use since 2004.
Simon has not detected new Russian prying, and he called the fundamentals of Minnesota’s safeguards sound. But he said it would be “irresponsible for me or for anyone to say that we can absolutely guarantee the absence of any mischief.”
Minnesota has 4,106 precincts. Some use only mail-in ballots; 3,510 of them use voting equipment, and much of it is outdated: 2,525 precincts had tabulators that were a decade old in 2016, and 3,151 had voting devices for people with disabilities of the same vintage.
A recent Brennan Center survey found that 41 states are using voting machines and computers this year that are more than 10 years old.
Five states use electronic voting machines that don’t automatically generate a paper backup, and in eight more states, some counties use those devices.
But change is coming:
• Georgia state Rep. Scot Turner, a Republican, introduced a bill that would retire those touch-screen electronic machines and switch to paper ballots. “This transcends party,” he said. “This is about fair and secure elections.”
• Rhode Island state Rep. Edith Ajello, a Democrat, sponsored a bill that is now law requiring extensive vote audits to confirm results starting this year. She wishes more voters were aware of the threats to election integrity: “I don’t think enough people get it.”
• Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, in February ordered counties that plan to replace electronic voting machines to buy systems with paper backups. Virginia plans to replace all touch-screen machines with paper ballots.
In Washington, Klobuchar is fighting for Senate consideration of the bipartisan Secure Elections Act, which would give states grants for electronic voting machine upgrades and develop voluntary cybersecurity guidelines.
Despite the backing of some Republicans, no hearings have been scheduled. Proponents hope to attach the measure to a fiscal 2018 spending bill that Congress must pass this month.
Ensuring that paper ballots are used everywhere is key, Klobuchar said, and the stakes are clear: “I worry about a hack and then no way for American voters to have their votes counted, so it disrupts our public faith in democracy.”
Other provisions in Klobuchar’s bill are meant to ease tensions between the federal government and states. Some state officials, including Simon, remain uneasy about the fact that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security waited until September 2017 to notify the states of Russia’s scans of their systems.
Some state officials worried about federal intrusions when the Obama administration declared election systems as critical infrastructure. There also are leftover qualms about Trump’s now-defunct voter integrity commission, which demanded that state officials turn over extensive voter data, including Social Security numbers and party affiliations.
Klobuchar’s bill would reaffirm states’ leadership in running elections and require the Department of Homeland Security to promptly share future election threats.
“There’s been an acknowledgment that you can’t wait a year to tell states that there’s been an attempt to hack into them,” Klobuchar said.
Simon said that the federal department has “done a good job … of making amends.” Later this month or early in April, staffers from the Department of Homeland Security will test Minnesota’s cybersecurity by attempting to gain access to the election system, then it will conduct a deeper analysis inside his office, Simon said.
The left-leaning Center for American Progress in February ranked the election security efforts of every state and the District of Columbia. Minnesota was among 11 states receiving a B grade; no As were assigned. Twenty-three states received a C, 12 a D and five got Fs.
The report commended Minnesota for testing voting machines and for its intrusion detection system for its voter registration system. It suggested that the state strengthen post-electon audits and require cybersecurity training for election officials. Simon said the state will soon mandate such training.
Some states are testing more stringent protections. In November, Colorado completed the nation’s first risk-limiting audit, manually checking a large number of votes in 56 counties until there was strong statistical evidence that the outcome was correct.
Indiana is working on a multi-factor authentication protocol for its voter registration database that requires users to insert a USB token and enter an ID after logging in with user names and passwords. Wisconsin also plans to implement the system.
Crow Wing County’s $118,912 state grant will go toward replacement of voting equipment that’s more than a decade old — making parts difficult to find, Erickson said. Through the Minnesota Association of County Officers, she’s helping to prepare best-practices guidelines for use in elections statewide.
A $135,635 state grant also will help pay for new gear in Cass County, where election administrator Sharon Anderson said her priority this year is “really pumping up our outreach program.”
That means advising voters how to distinguish mailed ballots from junk mail and urging them to sign up for text or e-mail alerts when ballots are sent.
The goal, she said, is to inspire confidence in the election process. “Being very open and transparent with information goes a long way toward building trust,” she said.
Joe Mansky, elections manager in Ramsey County, used a football analogy to underscore the importance of strong defenses to block election intruders. If you’re facing Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, he said, “The way you win is to keep him off the field.”