Minnesota Elections Officials Make $1.4 M Ask Citing Russian Threat

The security of the state’s election systems was behind a four-year funding request aimed at modernizing potentially vulnerable systems.

by Tad Vezner, Pioneer Press / March 19, 2018
Shutterstock

(TNS) — Citing national security officials’ warnings that Minnesota’s voter database had already been targeted by elements “at the behest of the Russian government,” the secretary of state is asking for funding to update its statewide registration system.

Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon said he’s been in multiple meetings with Department of Homeland Security officials — including a meeting as late as February — relating to foreign attempts to affect the integrity of Minnesota’s voting system.

“They are sobering,” Simon said of the meetings, for which he was recently given “secret” security clearance — meaning, he said, he couldn’t give too many details.

In 2016, entities associated with the Russian government targeted 21 states, including Minnesota, national security officials have said. Two of those states — Illinois and Arizona — had their state databases penetrated.

The databases do not affect voting results but include registered voters’ personal information, including such things as names and addresses, social security information, residential history and drivers’ license information.

Minnesota’s database, known as the Statewide Voter Registration System, had its defenses probed, but no hack was attempted, Simon said.

“They [national security officials] have publicly said we should expect more of this, and from more sources,” Simon said.

Again, the state’s SVRS system has nothing to do with how ballots are cast on election day. Ballots are instead handled at the individual county level — and as for any threat of compromising those county systems, Simon said, “That’s not the principle threat, here. The fundamentals in Minnesota are very good.”

In particular, Minnesota is still a “pen and paper” state — and paper records need to be kept for 22 months after election day.

Voting machines are, by state law, disconnected from the internet while voting takes place. After polls close, a paper copy of results is printed, that data is encrypted and sent to a central tallying site by modem — and the received data is checked via phone with the paper copy printed at polling stations.

“The architecture is very good,” Simon said.

But given “state actors with unlimited budgets” appear to be interested in Minnesota’s voters database, Simon said it would probably be good idea to modernize it.

Gov. Mark Dayton agreed, allocating $381,000 in his proposed budget to do it.

The database will take $1.4 million over four years to update, Simon said. Essentially, four people writing code for four years, at a cost of $350,000 a year.

With the remaining $31,000, Simon said he will make hardware and software upgrades suggested to him by national security officials.

When asked about any comparison to the $93 million MNLARS vehicle registration problems, Simon said, “This is not a brand-new system, as MNLARS is. This is a much smaller scope.”

The voters database was built in 2004 at a cost of roughly $6 million.

A report by the Office of the Legislative Auditor released Friday also recommended modernizing the voters registration database.

©2018 the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Platforms & Programs