New revelations that all 50 states had their voting systems targeted by Russians in 2016 and that more foreign actors are waging online disinformation campaigns are adding fresh urgency to state efforts to safeguard the 2020 vote.
“The stakes are very high and I feel that every day,” said Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, who met last week with state officials tasked with reviewing election security strategies before absentee primary voting starts in January. “No secretary of state can guarantee success. What we can guarantee is that we will try to minimize risks. But we’re in a fight here apparently with nation states.”
Special Counsel Robert Mueller warned Congress last week that Russia’s “sweeping and systematic” campaign to disrupt the 2016 election was not a mere one-off attempt: “They’re doing it as we sit here, and they expect to do it during the next campaign.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee concluded that Russia went after voting systems in all 50 states in 2016. Federal law enforcement and intelligence assessments previously disclosed that 21 states, including Minnesota, had been targeted. Though no votes were determined to have been affected, the committee’s report surmised that Moscow may have tried to probe vulnerabilities in state systems to exploit later or try to undermine confidence in the election.
Researchers also are pointing to Iran as being behind a new wave of disinformation efforts on social media platforms like Twitter, in many cases following the playbook established by Russia in 2016. Taken together, the developments underscore an expanding set of threats confronting election administrators as they scramble to bolster voting security with months to spare.
Minnesota is just now getting to work on using more than $6.6 million in federal election security money that had been held up in a bitter partisan standoff for more than a year. In Washington, the GOP-controlled Senate has stymied multiple legislative pushes to strengthen the country’s election defenses.
Simon hopes to use the federal money to hire a cyber navigator to work with local election workers on cybersecurity issues well before the 2020 election. He also wants to hire staff to update the antiquated statewide voter registration system and improve cybersecurity.
Simon said his office has been flooded with calls last week from concerned citizens.
He said he has been able to assure callers that Minnesota is already following procedures such as paper balloting and postelection auditing. Both precautions have been hailed as bettering the state’s chances of guarding against outside actors disrupting voting systems.
Minnesota officials also met for the first time last week as part of their participation in a six-month “policy academy” on election security arranged by the National Governors Association. Minnesota is one of six states participating in the project, which matches Simon’s office with representatives from the National Guard, MN.IT, the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and the governor’s office. Together, they will work on response plans for attacks on voting systems and improving communication among state agencies.
The BCA will be looking at ways to help both federal and state officials to improve investigations and, Superintendent Drew Evans said, “protect the integrity of our election systems, which are the backbone of our democracy.”
Thursday’s Senate report warned that election vulnerabilities remain throughout the country. Chief among the vulnerabilities in many states are outdated voting systems.
The Minnesota registration system Simon is working to update is more than 15 years old. Federal agencies have meanwhile worked to improve coordination with states, where local officials do the bulk of the work of administering elections.
Meanwhile, a legislative push backed by Minnesota U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar to require all states to adopt paper balloting and auditing continues to meet resistance in the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Thursday also blocked a House-passed bill to authorize $775 million to improve state election systems.
GOP leaders argue that the Trump administration already has taken sufficient steps to protect the vote, including the $380 million sent to states in 2018.
In response, Klobuchar said she was “alarmed and deeply frustrated that the Republicans continue to ignore this threat to our national security.”
Klobuchar has made election security a pillar of her bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.
She rolled out another measure on Friday focused on improving media literacy education to help students in grades K-12 better identify misinformation online. The bill, co-sponsored by fellow Minnesota Democratic Sen. Tina Smith, would start a $20 million federal grant program to hire educators and add media literacy into curriculum.
“Adversaries are targeting our democracy with sophisticated information campaigns designed to divide Americans and undermine our political system,” Klobuchar said. “One of the best ways we can fight back is to give people the tools they need to identify these disinformation campaigns, and that begins with educating students.”
Simon, a Democrat, described the confluence of Mueller’s testimony with the Senate committee’s findings as a rare opportunity to focus the country’s attention on an issue that has come to dominate his second term in office.
State Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, a Big Lake Republican who resisted making all of the election security money available to Simon throughout last session, said in a statement Friday that the Senate’s report “reaffirms what we already know — cyber security must be a priority.” Kiffmeyer, who holds an influential post as chair of the state Senate committee on elections, previously downplayed the urgency Simon expressed over the threat of foreign hackers on the election system. On Friday she said that officials must find a way to restore confidence in the integrity of the voting system.
“We have provided significant funding to prevent our infrastructure from being compromised and Secretary Simon must put those funds to use urgently so we are prepared for the next election,” Kiffmeyer said.
State Rep. Jim Nash, a Waconia Republican who works in cybersecurity, said that although hackers didn’t succeed in penetrating most voting systems in 2016 — Russians were able to break through in Florida and Illinois — further attempts by malicious actors would likely one day prove successful if left unchecked.
“Cybersecurity is always an urgency, and when you add state-run organizations or nation states into the mix who don’t play by the same rules of engagement that we do, you’re going to have a different playing field,” Nash said.