Despite broad agreement that foreign hackers will again target American voting systems in 2020, partisan friction in St. Paul and Washington has stalled efforts to bolster election security, with less than a year to go before Minnesotans cast presidential primary ballots.
The delay has alarmed elections officials and cybersecurity experts who warn of a repeat of 2016, when Russians targeted Minnesota and 20 other states in what special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, released Thursday, called a “sweeping and systematic fashion.”
“Hackers learn from hackers: The question becomes if [Russia] can do it, why wouldn’t any hacker around the world do it?” said Clint Watts, a former FBI agent and cybersecurity scholar. “We can talk Russia all day, but everybody knows this can be done now.”
Amid the warnings of Russian interference, Minnesota lawmakers remain at odds over using more than $6 million in federal funds approved by Congress more than a year ago to shore up election security. Minnesota is the only state that has yet to touch its share of the $380 million federal appropriation.
At the same time, a measure co-sponsored by Minnesota U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar to improve cybersecurity information sharing between federal agencies and local election workers also is at a standstill.
Local officials warn that time is running out.
“It is really going to handcuff us as we move into the 2020 election year,” said Deborah Erickson, Crow Wing County’s administrative services director, who has worked on local elections for more than 20 years. “Right now,” she said, Minnesota’s voter registration system “is not equipped to handle a presidential primary.”
Secretary of State Steve Simon wants to upgrade the state’s 15-year-old system, which he said is vulnerable to attack, and hire a “cyber navigator” that federal Homeland Security officials recommend states employ to help improve cyber defenses in local communities.
But despite initial optimism for bipartisan cooperation, the federal money has become a flash point of discord between Simon, a Democrat, and Senate Republicans who would like to steer resources into voter ID laws and other measures aimed at alleged voter fraud, which they consider a more urgent priority than possible foreign hacking.
As negotiations drag on, DFL Gov. Tim Walz has watched with growing impatience, saying the task has become “frozen in politics in the Senate.”
“Election security shouldn’t be a partisan issue or a bargaining chip,” Walz said. “It’s time we join every other state in the nation and protect our elections.”
The Republican-controlled Senate has approved $1.5 million to modernize the statewide voter registration system over the next four years. But Simon is urging lawmakers to free up the full pot of federal money to bolster the state’s cybersecurity efforts.
“That’s the spine of our election system,” Simon said of a system that contains data on millions of Minnesota voters. “It is a source of potential vulnerability for Minnesota because of its age, and it needs to be secured and recoded.”
Former State Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer, a Big Lake Republican who now chairs the Senate’s committee on elections, wants to limit immediate access to that $1.5 million while downplaying the urgency voiced by Simon.
“People are being hacked all the time,” said Kiffmeyer, a longtime supporter of voter ID laws. “You’re being hacked all the time, I am. This is no big thing.”
Concern over voter rolls
Kiffmeyer is skeptical of Simon’s plan for the additional money, which emerged from a working group of lawmakers, election officials and cyber experts over the past year. She also has joined other Republican lawmakers and conservative groups focused on the potential for fraudulent voting by noncitizens and immigrants living in the country illegally. She has called voter registration a true “weak spot” in the state’s election system.
Simon’s warnings about election hacking dovetail with the findings of federal intelligence agencies and Mueller’s two-year investigation, which netted indictments of 26 Russian nationals suspected of hacking voting systems and waging a massive online disinformation campaign.
For now, a state legislative conference committee to forge a plan for the federal money has yet to yield a compromise. As talks continue, Simon has invited Noah Praetz, a former Cook County, Ill., elections director who now advises the Department of Homeland Security, to testify before the committee.
Illinois was one of two states whose elections systems Russians successfully breached in 2016, breaking into the equivalent of Minnesota’s voter registration database. Praetz now travels the country discussing security with local election workers.
“Almost the entire country has accepted the premise that this is a real issue that needs investment,” Praetz said in an interview.
While Minnesota lawmakers debate election security, Homeland Security is redoubling its focus on state and local election defenses, backing the use of cyber navigators to provide IT services and training for local workers. In Minnesota, just nine of 87 counties have full-time officials focused on election administration, according to Simon.
Trying to sow distrust
Klobuchar, a 2020 presidential candidate, worked with Republican Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford to land the $380 million for state election security initiatives. Klobuchar has also sought to make foreign election interference a priority and called for Minnesota to access its federal funds immediately.
“More needs to be done on the federal level to protect our election infrastructure, including requiring backup paper ballots and audits, and improving online transparency,” Klobuchar said in a statement.
But another bipartisan bill co-authored by Klobuchar to foster information sharing between federal and state officials has languished in Congress, the collateral damage of a broader partisan standoff on election-related legislation. Although Democrats and Republicans largely agree on the findings of the Mueller report about the danger of Russian election interference, GOP leaders in Washington have accused Democrats of overreaching in a U.S. House bill that covers voting rights, campaign finance and government ethics.
Cybersecurity experts say Minnesota’s use of paper ballots makes it all but impossible for hackers to change votes. But officials are more concerned by the potential for hackers to sow discord by manipulating voter rolls and cast doubt on the American election process.
Matt Masterson, senior cybersecurity adviser at Homeland Security, said maintaining “the integrity of the election process … is our biggest concern.” To Masterson, that includes maintaining public faith in the integrity of the U.S. election system — a sense of trust that Russia likely sought to undermine.
“I would hate to get to the point where any Minnesota voter withheld their vote because they were worried about the security of the vote or the accuracy of the results,” Simon said. “And that’s the real worry here.”