As more and more of our world goes digital, what important system relies on paper records any more?

Democracy, for one.

The heart of Minnesota’s plan to safeguard the 2016 election from hackers and fraudsters is a sheet of paper that people mark with a pen. No matter what happens to voting tabulators or election databases, officials can count those piles of paper ballots.

“It’s ironic, isn’t it?” said Secretary of State Steve Simon, who will be on the hot seat if anything goes haywire on Nov. 8.

After serving a decade as a legislator, the DFLer was elected to the Secretary of State’s office in 2014. Simon took over from fellow DFLer Mark Ritchie, who presided over two statewide election recounts that featured long and contentious sessions of shuffling and perusing thousands of paper ballots.

“We really do have a culture here when it comes to election law of really relying on paper, and thank God for it,” Simon said last week. “We did not in Minnesota get distracted by the shiny object 15 or so years ago and go to touch-screen only with no receipt printouts or paper trail.”

A quarter of the nation’s votes will reportedly be cast on machines with no paper trail. That seems scary to those who have warned that hackers could break into election systems.

Those fears went from theoretical to real in mid-August, when the FBI sent an alert to every state’s election authorities. In June, hackers had succeeded in breaking into the state of Illinois voter registration system and stealing information on thousands of voters before the breach was stopped in mid-July. Hackers also tried, and failed, to get into Arizona’s election database.

The FBI alert included instructions on how states could detect intruders and fortify their systems, according to a copy of the alert obtained by Yahoo News.

Simon said his computer people checked their systems and instituted “some other best practices” to protect them. But he said Minnesota’s voter registration database is “much more secure” than the one in Illinois.

Earlier in August, Simon’s office was already detailing how Minnesota elections would be harder to sabotage. Voters make their choices on paper, and then feed the ballots into a tabulator that isn’t connected to the internet. When the polls close, the tabulator prints out a paper receipt with the vote totals.

Those totals aren’t reported until officials check the receipt against the number of paper ballots. Any data that’s transmitted is encrypted. There are other checks, and tests, and audits.

If you don’t trust any of that, though, you still have those ballots, with the filled-in ovals denoting whom you want as your leaders. The state has to keep them, by law, for 22 months after the election.

It’s not entirely foolproof. Back in 2008, 133 ballots lost in transit from one Minneapolis precinct became a plot twist in the Senate recount saga. Officials ended up using the machine tally.

Yet in this era of giant data breaches, those stacks of paper are reassuring.

With all of the preparations, Simon said he’s “reasonably confident” that the election in Minnesota will not be marred by troublemakers. “I’m trying to strike the balance,” he said. “I’m not worrying myself to an early grave. I’m also vigilant.”

No Secretary of State wants to end up like Katherine Harris, who will forever be remembered for presiding over Florida’s chaotic election apparatus in 2000 that tilted the presidential race to fellow Republican George W. Bush.

Since then, Congress sent billions to states to upgrade their voting equipment. That’s probably how a polling station from Palm Beach County, Fla., ended up on eBay. It has the special tabletop for voters to punch out the chad in the notorious butterfly ballot.

Friends of Simon’s bought it for him as a birthday present. He keeps it in his office. “It’s my daily reminder … a reminder that this stuff matters.”

 

Contact James Eli Shiffer at james.shiffer@startribune.com or 612-673-4116.