Hennepin County recorded its highest voter registration in 2016, but that could easily be surpassed during the upcoming election season.
And since Minnesota was one of 21 states where Russian hackers targeted elections last time around, officials have a new playbook in place to reduce risks associated with the election process and cybersecurity.
Last week, the County Board received a briefing from county elections manager Ginny Gelms and Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon about the current landscape of protecting the integrity of election systems. The day before the board briefing, Simon had testified to Congress on the same subject.
“It doesn’t matter who is trying to do the attacking,” Simon told county commissioners. “Keep your hands off our democracy.”
Hennepin County is at the forefront of election protection, with a system that other counties in Minnesota and around the country want to emulate, said Simon. Hennepin is the only county in the state to have had a cyber resilience review and vulnerability test by a team from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Every piece of election equipment is tested all the way through the election process, said Gelms.
The county uses an online voter registration portal, e-poll books for polling place check-in, high-speed absentee ballot counters and an election night reporting system website, she said.
County employees, city and school district clerks and vendors take election risk assessment workshops and learn about emergency plans to follow should voters and the election process come under threat.
To protect the integrity of the process, the county has paper backups for ballots and poll books, chain-of-custody procedures and postelection audit and recount procedures. Elections data and results servers are on separate networks, which are monitored for abnormal traffic. Only a few people have access to the secured election data center, said Gelms.
She also discussed the importance of maintaining public confidence in elections. Cybersecurity attacks are a new face on an old threat, she said; attacks that threaten the integrity of elections have existed as long as people have voted.
Hennepin is one of nine Minnesota counties that have a full-time elections manager. The state “is known nationally for its clean, transparent elections procedures,” Gelms said.
When Simon addressed the board, several commissioners asked how far the attempted election breach went in Minnesota. He said it didn’t have an impact on the election, though hackers were able to gain a little more access in Illinois’ election. But even there, he said, no harm was done to results.
Since the Trump administration has made protecting the election process a priority, Congress has dedicated $380 million for states to improve their cybersecurity efforts. Minnesota received $6.6 million, which Simon said will be used to hire three people who will do nothing but computer coding for the next four years.
“I am cautiously optimistic we won’t have any breaches for the upcoming election,” he said. “This is a race without a finish line. The bad guys get smarter every year.”
On a lighter note, Simon talked about how his office is working to get younger people to vote. For the first time in 2016, he said, high schools were asked to participate in mock presidential votes. More than 96,000 students from 281 high schools participated.
Who won, you ask? Hillary Clinton — by less than 1 percent. What was really interesting, Simon said, was that 32 percent of students said they aligned with neither the Democratic nor the Republican parties.