The April 21 article “While hackers threaten 2020 election systems, politics intruding on security fixes” demonstrates that some lawmakers do not understand the threats facing our democracy.
Democracy requires that voters have trust in our electoral system. Without it, the entire basis for our government breaks down. Russia knows this: A fundamental goal of the 2016 Russian election interference campaign was to sow distrust in our democracy, and the Russians accomplished this in a “sweeping and systemic fashion,” according to the Mueller report.
It’s a fact that election systems in Minnesota were targeted in cyberattacks in 2016. There is no evidence we were compromised, but knowing we were targeted means we must take action. Yet Minnesota is the only state that has not tapped into available federal resources to secure and maintain trust in our electoral systems. The election security funding is being held up by Republicans in the Legislature, because Minnesota is one of the few states that require the Legislature to sign off on use of those funds.
Mary Kiffmeyer, the Republican chair of the Senate committee on elections, has dismissed the need for cybersecurity, stating, “People are being hacked all the time. You’re being hacked all the time, I am. This is no big thing.”
For an elected official with responsibility for the integrity of our elections, that is a deeply troubling statement. Calling outright attacks on our democracy “no big thing” is burying our head in the sand.
When individuals are targeted online, there are measures to detect and mitigate potential harm. We monitor our credit scores, use strong and unique passwords and enable two-factor authentication to make sure adversaries don’t gain access to our sensitive information. The state of Minnesota must position itself to take similar countermeasures to protect our elections.
What exactly are the threats? Aging infrastructure often leads to the most vulnerable systems. Federal intelligence agencies have probed our electoral systems and have made specific recommendations.
According to Secretary of State Steve Simon, one of these projects is estimated to take four years, leaving the state vulnerable to an attack through at least another presidential and midterm election. Other essential projects could be started if the state would spend the federal dollars available, which have gone untouched for years.
Minnesota does many things right when it comes to its electoral systems. For example, it uses paper ballots, which create an audit trail resistant to electronic manipulation. And while several states saw their voter registration databases breached in 2016, Minnesota’s same-day voter registration helps protect against the possibility of voters being wrongfully purged from the rolls. But that does not mean something similar could not happen here.
Some potential threats to election integrity are overstated and do not represent real threats to our elections. A voter ID law, still being pursued by Republicans after being rejected by voters in 2012, would require voters to show ID at the polls. However, multiple studies have shown that intentional voter fraud by individual voters is rare and that voter ID requirements are far more likely to prevent legitimate votes from being cast.
Finally, it’s not just Russia that should concern us. With any new type of cyberattack, those techniques eventually filter their way down, making them accessible to even your average hacker. Our election systems will soon come under attack from other nations as well as nonstate actors, if they are not already. There is too much at stake to just hope the problem goes away.
It’s time to stop playing politics with election security. We need to take the federal money that has already been made available to us and implement these changes. The integrity of our democracy depends on it.
Anton Schieffer is an information-security analyst in Minneapolis.