By: Samantha Becker
Election security was a significant concern leading up to election day in Minnesota. During the 2016 election campaign, the Department of Homeland Security determined that Russia attempted to hack into twenty-one state election systems. One of the states targeted was Minnesota. The attempt was unsuccessful, but it still raised concerns about the state’s ability to detect and protect against future election cyberattacks.
In May, the federal government approved 380 million for states to improve their election security in the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). The funds were meant to assist states in making security improvements to their election systems, which could include replacing old voting machines, creating post-election audit processes, and giving cybersecurity training to state election officials. Out of the approved funds, $6.6 million was allocated for Minnesota.
Under Article 1, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution, state legislatures have authority to determine the “times, places and manner of holding elections” for federal offices. Thus, it is up to the states to decide how to regulate elections and how to use the HAVA federal funding for election security. Under Minnesota law, the HAVA funding needs legislative approval before it can be used to improve election security in the state.
Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon has continually expressed concern about potential hacking during the 2018 election. He has received secret intelligence briefings from the federal government about potential threats and risks to the state election system. In May, Simon said he has “tried to sound the alarm without being alarmist” and that the $6.6 million in federal funding was the state’s best chance to protect Minnesota election systems.
The $6.6 million was included in the Minnesota 2018 tax and budget bills, which were politically controversial for reasons unrelated to cybersecurity. Because of that controversy, the governor vetoed the bills in May. The state legislative session ended without the legislature approving the funds, meaning the state has been unable to use those resources to strengthen its election security system before the 2018 election. Minnesota is the only state that has not received its share of the HAVA election security funds. In October, Simon said that his staff was still working to stay on top of any election security threats to the state.
Minnesota has one of the highest voter turnout rates in the country, with 74.7% of eligible voters casting ballots in the 2016 election. During his testimony before the United States Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, Simon stated that for election security “the stakes are particularly high” in Minnesota because of the state’s high voter turnout.
Despite the lack of federal funding for election security, the state has instituted several new cybersecurity programs and initiatives to make its election system more resilient. For example, the state is now partnering with the Microsoft Defending Democracy Program to strengthen Minnesota’s election cybersecurity. In addition, the state has introduced an intrusion protection system as well as multi-factor authentication for all users of the Statewide Voter Registration System and elections staff. Finally, the state also conducts a post-election review in randomly selected precincts.
In November, Simon won his reelection bid for Minnesota Secretary of State, beating challenger John Howe, the former mayor of Red Wing. During the campaign, both candidates focused on the issue of election security.
In the immediate aftermath of the November election, there has been no evidence that another cyberattack was attempted against the Minnesota election system. Still, it is likely that election security concerns will continue in the state, as well as across the country.