Even though a cybersecurity team was put in place a year out and even though a private vendor was hired to provide even more protection, Minnesota was among states targeted by hackers looking to disrupt or even alter the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.
With a year left before the 2020 vote, Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon is determined to make sure our state is even better prepared for another attack.
“2016 was really, kind of, in the world of elections administration, our 9/11 moment,” Simon said in an exclusive interview this week with the News Tribune Editorial Board. In other words, it was when everything related to how elections are run in the U.S. changed for the tighter and more careful.
“The good news is nothing bad happened (in Minnesota),” Simon said. “The bad guy never got in, and that’s great, but the way I like to put it is that cybersecurity, for any institution, … is a race without a finish line. You have to stay one step ahead of the bad guys. There is no resting. There is no end zone dance that you get to do.”
Minnesota was far more fortunate than places like Arizona and Illinois, where hackers were able to access potentially millions of voter records. No votes were changed. No outcome was altered. But the bad guys could have deleted or changed voter records, created chaos at polling places, or worse. As it was, they harmed the integrity of our elections and eroded American trust in election outcomes. That ought to be a concern to every one of us.
In response, Congress allocated funds to help secure voting systems nationwide. Minnesota received $6.6 million to upgrade hardware and software; modernize and recode the state’s 2004-created voter registration system; and hire more people, including a “cyber navigator.”
In addition, federal Homeland Security and Intelligence agents came to Minnesota to do their best to crack through the Secretary of State’s systems and firewalls and then to recommend improvements.
“The good news is we’re in good shape. Of course they found some things to work on but nothing critical,” Simon said. “We really feel good going into 2020 about security. Can I sit here and tell you there’s a 0% chance that something bad could happen? No, that would be pandering and untrue. … But I can tell you we’re minimizing the risks. And we already had a lot going for us, just naturally, because we’re a paper-ballot state. … Low-tech beats high-tech here.”
“I’m cautiously quite optimistic about where we are. And the fact is we’re a long way from where we were in 2016. The intelligence authorities have really been solid partners,” he further said. “It’s the kind of mischief we don’t want.”
Like a car prowler casing a parking lot, Minnesota was targeted in 2016. The culprits were identified as from Russia. Iran and China also have been identified as threats. “'There are adversaries who have the appetite and the capability to do it again,'” Simon said he has been told by Washington.
So the efforts of Simon and his team to counter them can be welcomed and encouraged. Americans, including us Minnesotans, need to be able to trust our elections.