Election 2018FeaturedNews

Homeland Security Secretary Nielsen: Colo. a national leader in safeguarding elections

Author: Marianne Goodland - September 6, 2018 - Updated: September 11, 2018

David Stern, top right, a cyber security official with the Department of Homeland Security, works with Colorado county elections officials at a security training exercise in Denver on Sept. 6. State, county and federal elections officials worked on security scenarios to prepare for the November midterm elections. (AP Photo/Jim Anderson)

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Nielsen praised Colorado as a national leader in safeguarding elections in a brief appearance Thursday at an elections “war games” training event in Arapahoe County.

“Any attempt to interfere in our elections is a direct attack on our democracy and is unacceptable,” Nielsen told participants at the Hilton Denver Inverness hotel near Centennial Airport.

Turning to Colorado’s record, she declared: “We’d love to continue to use you as an example of what other states can adopt.”

Hundreds of elections staffers, including county clerks from 63 of 64 Colorado counties, spent the day at the event, coordinated by Secretary of State Wayne Williams with assistance from Nielsen’s department and the federal Election Assistance Commission.

Attendees tested their preparations and contingency plans for dealing with all kinds of scenarios that could occur on Election Day 2018 — a fire, a spilled drink on a computer tablet, a power failure, hackers, or a voting center that doesn’t open on time.

The event also drew the secretaries of state of New Mexico and New Jersey, the executive director of the National Association for Secretaries of State, representatives from election nonprofits, and observers, including those from congressional offices and attorneys for the two major political parties.

A Washington Post story in 2017 called Colorado “the safest place in the nation” to cast a vote. That’s a big reason why elections personnel from other states attended Thursday’s event, which also drew national media.

Neilsen told attendees that her department wants all 50 states to conduct post-election risk-limiting audits, which strictly ensure the accuracy of vote counts, by 2020. It’s standard practice in Colorado.

Colorado was the only one among 21 targeted states to report to Homeland Security — not the other way around — that Russian interests attempted to hack into its systems in 2016, said state elections director Judd Choate.

The state has invested in new vote tabulating machines and creates a separate paper trail of each ballot cast. Since 2013, it’s required two-factor authentication for elections systems operators to access equipment.

The Secretary of State’s office has more internet technology staff than purely elections-related staff, and it has plans, which Choate wouldn’t disclose for security reasons, to guarantee security and privacy in the remote case the state’s voter registration database is hacked.

This year, the state also will monitor Facebook, Twitter and Instagram starting well ahead of the election to detect and respond to false rumors about voting procedures, outages, and other voting problems. It also will collect intelligence on efforts to sway voters on social media, Choate said. He noted that Colorado’s collaboration with Homeland Security is strong.

Choate warned the dozens of clerks, database experts and others that Thursday’s exercise would be tough, involving, among a cascade of other problems, attempts to hack voter rolls, detect possible malware planted in voting systems weeks beforehand, phishing and responding to social media posts claiming systems were hacked or voters turned away. The exercise concerned both the weeks leading up to the election and election day itself.

“Like the worst possible election day and election that you’ve ever seen in your life. So there’s every single disaster that you probably thought couldn’t happen, and then about 15 that you wouldn’t even thought through,” Choate said.

Thursday’s war games broke the groups into two rooms: one for large counties and the second for small counties.

election preparedness
Media and election observers watch the “war games” election preparedness exercises set up Thursday in Denver for Colorado’s elections personnel. (Photo by Marianne Goodland, Colorado Politics)

The room for large counties included staff impersonating the media, which Williams said is because the larger counties — especially those along the Front Range — are more accustomed to media scrutiny, so their preparations also included facing election day questions of all kinds.

Two one-hour exercises were structured so that one minute represented 15 minutes of election day, and the testing went on from 7 a.m., when the polls open, to 8 p.m., which accounted for a one-hour delay when one county’s voting center had to remain open because of a power failure. For the rest of the county clerks and recorders and their staff, that meant making sure they knew they had to hold off on posting election results for one more hour, since those results are not supposed to be made public until all polls are closed.

Election staff from smaller counties got a taste of the media scrutiny, too, in what Williams called a more “insulated” environment.

“It’s wonderful to work with other county officers to see how they react to these scenarios,” said Todd Davidson, who manages elections for Arapahoe County. “It reinforces the contingency plans we already have in place, and reminds us of things we may need contingencies for.”

He said there were a few areas for which they were not prepared, but were also reassured about the fail-safes they have in place.

“It makes us feel like we’re doing the right thing,” he added.

In some scenarios, staff switched places to get a sense of what those in other roles face on Election Day. Mesa County Clerk and Recorder Sheila Reiner swapped places with staff from her county’s voting service polling center, which she said was fun and gave her some insight into changes she will make to training materials and how much information goes to those employees and judges.

For example, a drink got spilled on a ballot-marking device in one of the scenarios, and the immediate reaction was just to wipe it off and not to notify the clerk. That’s not the best response, Reiner indicated, especially if that’s something voters notice. The better response, she explained, is to notify the clerk and obtain instructions on how to handle that problem.

Former Denver Elections Director Amber McReynolds, now Executive Director at The Vote At Home Institute, said Thursday’s training gives elections divisions enough time to make adjustments to procedures, if necessary.

The only county clerk not present at Thursday’s war games was from Hinsdale County, citing a small two-person office, Williams said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

This article was updated at 1:39 p.m. Sept. 7 to correct McReynolds’ job title.

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland is the chief legislative reporter for Colorado Politics. She's covered the Colorado General Assembly for 20 years, starting off in 1998 with the Silver & Gold Record, the editorially-independent newspaper at CU that was shuttered in 2009. She also writes for six rural newspapers in northeastern Colorado. Marianne specializes in rural issues, agriculture, water and, during election season, campaign finance. In her free time (ha!) she lives in Lakewood with her husband, Jeff; a cantankerous Shih-Tzu named Sophie; and Gunther the cat. She is also an award-winning professional harpist.