Colorado has earned another moniker as the “safest ballot boxes in the nation,” according to Chaffee County Clerk Lori Mitchell and Homeland Security officials. In two training sessions Sept. 6 and Sept. 10 in Denver, the state and its election officials participated in “table-top games” attended by Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, followed by a comprehensive Federal Bureau of Investigation training day. The goal was to prepare for and handle any attempts to influence election results.
“These cyber security sessions are so important, and I’m so glad that Colorado has led the way on this,” said Mitchell, who is also president of the Colorado County Clerk and Recorder Association. “Our democracy depends upon the nation’s voting process and Colorado has gained a national reputation as one of the safest – if not the safest state in the nation – when it comes to voters being able to trust voting results.”
As the nation gets ready for the 2018 midterm elections, the safety of our ballot boxes is top of mind. Since the 2016 election when U.S. national security organizations concluded that Russian hackers attempted entry into American voting processes, according to Mitchell, the nation has officially done very little to prepare to protect the democratic process.
The Colorado training is the first in the nation, drawing not just state and county officials but representatives from neighboring states and across the nation, as well as nonprofit organizations that focus on election safety. As the first state to develop cyber security training, Colorado has signaled an aggressive stance to prepare the state to spot tampering, respond to incidents and reassure the public. Sixty-three of Colorado’s 64 counties participated in the cyber security training, with only Hinsdale county abstaining from training.
“I’m so pleased that the Colorado secretary of state and our Colorado Clerk and Recorder Offices have taken this seriously,” said Mitchell. “The training was invaluable. Actually, by not participating, Hinsdale doesn’t realize they are endangering the other counties because when we log into the voter registration system, we log into the state files, not local files.”
Mitchell said the cyber security war games were designed to place participants in different scenarios in which they were required to work as teams to confront the situations.
Among the take-aways, said Mitchell, is the critical role that communications will play in dealing with cyber attacks, including the need to establish a public information officer role during a crisis. “We didn’t realize until Secretary Nielsen spoke during Thursday’s training that Colorado was the first and only state to call Homeland Security to report the (unsuccessful) 2016 attempts to hack our system, although many other states had the same experience. Colorado was willing to raise a flag and say, ‘Hey, look at what is going on!’ The secretary commended us for raising the warning.”
Mitchell noted that the FBI says it is now aggressively moving to develop entire new departments that will forge public-private partnerships and include a foreign counter-intelligence group to protect our elections. Part of the state’s cyber security exercise focused on the creation of a consistent county communications plan that required Colorado clerks to file contingency plans with the state as of Sept. 7.
She said that there is urgency to protect the nation’s ballot system from cyber attacks. “These things are so new to us – all this is happening at warp speed and we’re trying to catch up. In fact, much of this has just been developed in the past two years. One thing I can tell you, this state will be more aggressive in confronting misinformation campaigns, both on social media and at the county level. That said, we don’t need to respond to every tin-foil hat conspiracy to get out the right information.”
“Colorado wouldn’t have been able to do this unless we had our new voting system – the old legacy systems wasn’t secure,” said Mitchell. “We always had a post-election audit, but now we can prove to you that your vote is there.”
Colorado has invested heavily in new voting equipment over the past several years, unlike other states. The combination of voting apparatus with a paper ballot trail and a tight, post-election audit system ensures that every vote can be validated. It is the first system of its kind in the world.
Asked about her goals for Chaffee County, Mitchell said, “I’m trying to build voter confidence. I can tell you for sure that when you cast your vote in Chaffee County, you know it’s safe.”