What the Mueller report tells us about Minnesota's election security

Testing the election equipment.
Joan Curtis, center, examined a test ballot and Merle Davis worked through a checklist as election officials conducted a public election equipment test in northeast Minneapolis in 2016.
Tim Nelson | MPR News 2016

Among the things we've learned from the Mueller report is the extent to which Russian operatives attempted to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. It includes evidence that former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort met with a man believed to be connected to Russian intelligence and shared internal polling data that listed Minnesota as a battleground state.

The report also documents how Russian operatives attempted to hack into computers used by election officials in a number of other states. MPR News spoke to Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon.

What did you learn from the redacted version of the Mueller report?

There was one bit of news that was made, which is that a county in Florida was infiltrated. Now that's new. Nobody has stepped forward before in the state of Florida to say that a county had been breached and now we know from the Mueller report that that's true.

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Apart from that the Mueller report goes into some detail that wasn't publicly disclosed before about infiltrations in the state of Illinois where a Russian intelligence agency basically breached or compromised a network there and the state elections board not only went in and routed around but also compromised personal information of thousands of American voters. That happened. We now know that. It's out there in the light of day.

The report indicates that in 2017 federal officials found Russian hackers probed Minnesota's election system. What does probed mean to you?

The way that Homeland Security has described it to us is that we were targeted. And the analogy that we've all settled on is this: Imagine a car thief casing a parking lot to see if he'll go in and steal cars. Our parking lot was cased extensively, and what the intelligence folks have told us is that they know who is doing it, they know who those people were working for, and they know the purpose for which they were casing our parking lot. We were one of the 21 states that had this sort of casing.

It's not just sort of idle looking and speculating; it's people looking around for the purpose of trying to get in. No, nobody did get in in Minnesota, which is great, but it's a real warning to all of us that our adversaries are out there. We've been told this year to prepare for 2020 and to expect more of this from more sources, not just one government but other governments and non-governmental actors.

The Election Assistance Commission has made $6.6 million available to Minnesota for election security. How would you use that money?

Last year I convened a working group of legislators and staff from all four legislative caucuses, IT experts, people from around the state, various local governments. We met several times, divided into subcommittees and all that, and we came up with a blueprint for spending this money with price tags on them. We submitted that to the legislature in late November of last year in advance of the legislative session. So we have a plan and we furnished the Legislature with some testimony from insiders and outsiders about why that plan is the right way to go.

Unfortunately, that plan is stalled. The House on a bipartisan basis has passed it by huge margins. In the Senate, though, it stalled, and they are blocking and limiting the money to only a small portion of it. We don't know yet why they're doing that. They haven't articulated any reason for that — any disagreement with the plan, any disappointment with the plan — and that's troubling. I think that's a dangerous game to play.

I understand, having been in the Legislature for many years, about bargaining chips at the end of session. But this isn't like the normal bargaining chip. This is a dangerous game that's putting Minnesota a risk every day that we delay getting this money, and I should say we are the only state in America not to have this money authorized. It all rests on a deadlock in the Minnesota Legislature right now.

Once that money is freed up does it give you enough time to implement changes with the cash?

We do have time to implement many changes for the 2020 election. Some things that we have proposed to do are longer term projects. One in particular is a four-year project. It's probably the biggest project and the one that relates most closely to the things that the Mueller report talks about things like safeguarding our statewide voter registration system and so forth.

But there are other things that we can do that have been recommended for us by the federal intelligence agencies, who were on site in our office poking and prodding and probing and trying to look for vulnerabilities. So we know what the intelligence community recommendations are, and we know what our working group has put together. Bottom line is we think we know what to do and we think most of that will be done in time to safeguard our 2020 election.

Click on the audio player above to hear the interview.