Acknowledging that election security has become a “politicized” issue, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz said Tuesday that state and federal officials “need to stay in the lane of the facts” as they deal with the threat of election interference ahead of the 2020 election.
Before sitting in on a Homeland Security threat briefing, the governor addressed a group of lawmakers, election workers and state government officials gathered for a two-day workshop aimed at forging a statewide election cybersecurity plan for 2020 and beyond.
The conclave, part of Minnesota’s role in a six-month “policy academy” on election security, comes as congressional Democrats initiate an impeachment inquiry into a whistleblower’s allegation that President Donald Trump solicited Ukraine’s help in his re-election bid. The president has also reportedly said that he was unconcerned about Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election because the U.S. had done the same in other countries.
In what has been described as a “widespread and systematic” attack on the U.S. election system in 2016, Russian hackers targeted all 50 states’ voting systems while also compromising Democratic Party computer networks. Since then, federal intelligence officials have warned of more attempts from more sources, both foreign and domestic, while underscoring the greater likelihood that ongoing online disinformation campaigns will continue to pose a grave threat for election integrity.
“I think this is one of those areas where it’s better to err on the side of caution of protecting the system than to pretend that it didn’t happen even though the experts are unanimous in that it did and that it’s a real threat,” Walz told reporters on Tuesday.
Matthew Masterson, senior adviser on election security at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, called on state and local officials at the State Capitol on Tuesday to develop plans to respond to cyberattacks and quickly communicate to voters in such cases. In an hourlong briefing, Masterson outlined a “hybrid threat of disinformation and the targeting of systems.”
“We know our adversaries’ goal is to undermine confidence in our democratic institutions,” Masterson said. “We know adversaries want us to question the validity of the vote, the validity of the process, our judicial processes and … divide us on these issues.”
Much of the workshop agenda Tuesday was closed to the public. Minnesota is one of six states taking part in a six-month “policy academy” on election security through the National Governors Association. The project includes the University of Southern California and is funded by the Democracy Fund, a foundation started by eBay founder and philanthropist Pierre Omidyar.
Part of the state’s pitch for inclusion in the academy was a proposal to forge a long-term agreement between the Secretary of State’s Office and a new cyber defense team at the Minnesota National Guard. In collaboration with Minnesota IT Services, the partnership is expected to test for vulnerabilities in election machines and cyber systems while also probing for misinformation campaigns online.
Since beginning his second term in January, Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon has made safeguarding the state’s election defenses his top public priority, which he has described as “a race without a finish line.” This year Minnesota became the last state to access more than $6.6 million in federal election security funds that had been held up in a partisan standoff in the Legislature. Simon said recently that his office is now working to modernize a 15-year-old statewide voter registration system.
The U.S. Senate last month approved another $250 million for state election security grants. Walz on Tuesday anticipated proposals for allocating additional funds for Minnesota, something he said he hoped would not produce another protracted legislative fight.
“I made it no secret that I think we drug our feet a bit,” Walz said of the debate over the initial $6.6 million. “The secretary was very clear in what he needed and I trusted that team. … I think as we get into it this is one of those events that we just can’t get wrong. If we need the resources to do it, we need to make sure they’re there.”
Minnesota already uses paper ballots and postelection auditing, as recommended by election experts. So far, 59 of the state’s 87 counties participate in a federal information sharing and analysis center, and Simon hopes to see that number grow ahead of the 2020 election. Masterson said that with little time before the next election, states can still take simple steps to prevent intrusions, such as strengthening password protections for officials who access the statewide voter registration system and developing incident response plans.
“We’re able to check several of those boxes right now,” Simon added. “But I think fine-tuning some of those things in terms of incident response and tightening communications protocols between and among levels of government up, down and sideways I think is really, really important.”