On a quiet Tuesday morning in St. Louis Park, Melissa Maynard was punching names into voting equipment, including her own. She wrote herself in as Minnesota’s next secretary of state.
But it wasn’t Election Day, and Maynard doesn’t actually want to be secretary of state. She’s a long-time election judge in the area helping out with legally-required accuracy testing of voting equipment.
The actual secretary of state, Steve Simon, was on hand watching over the process, which must be open to the public.
“I’m here, like everyone else is here, to be an observer,” he said. “It’s an important way for the public to have even more confidence than it already does in the transparency of our system and the honesty and fundamental competence of our system.”
Similar tests were happening at hundreds of polling places across the state two weeks before the Nov. 6 election. Election judges feed paper ballots into ballot machines and make sure all the markings are properly read, or if someone marks their ballot down improperly, the machine issues the appropriate warning.
It’s this paper-based, decentralized system that helps make Minnesota’s voting system strong and less vulnerable to attacks from outside groups, Simon said. Minnesota uses paper ballots instead of touch screen voting — it’s “very hard to hack paper,” he said — and the system is spread out across 4,100 polling places with more than 31,000 election judges administering the election.
“Ultimately the votes are cast and counted at the local level,” he said. “That’s part of what makes our system so good and so effective.”
Nationally, there’s a lot of concern about outside groups breaking into state election systems. Two years ago, Minnesota was one of 21 states notified by the Department of Homeland Security that entities “acting at the behest of the Russian government” scanned addresses associated with the office for vulnerabilities.
But they didn’t get in.
Still, these kinds of scans happen every day in state government. Simon has a team to help protect the state from these kinds of attacks, but he was hoping they could do even more this election cycle, especially in a year where Minnesota has plenty of high profile, competitive races. That includes an open governor’s seat, four competitive congressional races and two U.S. Senate seats on the ballot. Simon is also seeking re-election to his job.
Earlier this year, he asked the Minnesota Legislature to authorize him to unlock more than $6 million in federal funding to beef up state election security. But the session ended in acrimony and Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed that measure because it was wrapped into a budget bill that included other provisions he opposed.
Simon said he is checking in with intelligence officials later this week to get the most up-to-date information on possible election security threats.
“I have a high degree of confidence of where we are in terms of cyber security. I would have an even higher degree of confidence than I do now had the Legislature come through with the money,” he said. “It’s not worth talking about it too much. We are where we are and we have the tools we need to make the system as secure as it possibly can be.”