Next year's presidential election will be the first since Russian hackers targeted US elections three years ago, and it is almost certain that outside actors will try again. 

So how secure are our election systems?

During a Rochester visit, the state's top election official, Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, said he can't give a "100 percent guarantee" that "nothing bad will happen, but we have done everything we can to minimize the risk." 

Simon said his confidence rests on Minnesota's reliance on paper ballots and post-election audits.

Although politics delayed Minnesota's access to federal funds for election security (it was the last state to get them), once it got the money, it was used to bolster staffing and implement recommendations by U.S. intelligence services. 

"This is a race without a finish line," Simon said during a meeting of the Post Bulletin editorial board. 

Fortifying the system

U.S. intelligence has warned that efforts to target and undermine U.S. elections will continue, and those efforts won't just originate from Russia but could come from other nations or even non-state actors. 

A team of trouble-shooters brought in to find vulnerabilities in the state's election system produced a raft of recommendations to fortify the system. A cyber-navigator was also hired to serve as a liaison with election officials at the city and county level. 

"They're expensive. Congress, to its credit, recognized that," Simon said about implementing the improvements. 

Simon called the 2016 presidential election a "watershed moment," profoundly changing the way election officials do their job. No one asked about cyber security-related election issues when he ran in the 2016 election. Now it's the dominant issue.

He said some states are now regretting the decision made years ago to adopt touchscreen-only voting, which leaves no paper trail.

Legislation authored by Democrat U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar would mandate that all states use paper ballots, but the bill has been blocked from consideration by GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. 

Minnesota was one of 21 states whose election systems were targeted by Russian-affiliated hackers before the 2016 election. It's not clear why Minnesota was targeted, but the breach failed. 

"The good news is that we kept the bad guys out, and nothing happened," Simon said. 

Primary over caucus

One big change in the upcoming presidential election: For the first time since the 1950s, the state will nominate candidates through a presidential primary rather than through the party caucus system. The Legislature made the change in 2016 after it saw how caucuses were disenfranchising people.

"Caucuses were the victims of their own success," Simon said. "Turnout in some places was so large and overwhelming that people were turned away or turned off. It was chaotic."

The primary will be held March 3, but voters can begin voting absentee on Jan. 17

Running a primary will entail greater costs, estimated at nearly $12 million. Part of the rising costs, in addition to hiring more election staff, stem from the fact that two marijuana legalization parties achieved major party status in the last election, bringing the number of major parties in the state from two to four. 

One problematic aspect of the presidential primary is the "data issues" it has created, Simon said

Unlike an August primary or general election, where the party one votes for is kept secret, voters will have to select a party ballot to vote in the nominating contest. And the major parties will have access to those lists and know which party each person voted for. 

The original legislation passed in 2016 made that information public, but the Legislature later tweaked the law to keep it private.

The four major parties will not only have access to their list but the lists of the three other parties. And that may rub some voters who want their political sympathies kept private the wrong way. Simon said he would like to keep the information totally private and out of the hands of the parties.

But the two major parties pushed hard for access to the lists, even threatening to withhold recognition of Minnesota's delegates at the national conventions. 

He said he wanted voters to be aware of this wrinkle even if leads to lower turnout. 

"We just want to make sure that people go in aware, and no one feels tricked or ill-informed," Simon said. 

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