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North Dakota officials confident in election security

Two years after a major breach in the cybersecurity of the presidential election, North Dakota--one of 21 states Russians targeted in 2016--says it's doing just fine.

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Nelson Rosit assists a voter at City Hall Tuesday during Primary voting. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Two years after a major breach in the cybersecurity of the presidential election, North Dakota-one of 21 states Russians targeted in 2016-says it's doing just fine.

State Director of Elections John Arnold said it's partially because the state doesn't have voter registration that election data is so secure.

"Whereas other states have to worry about securing that voter registration database to make sure things aren't altered, North Dakota doesn't have those concerns because it doesn't have a database," Arnold said.

Rest assured, his office and county auditors across the state have been taking necessary steps to improve cyber and normal security practices year-round.

"We don't comment a whole lot on security because we don't want to put our preparations out there so people are aware of what we're doing," Arnold said. "We have been working with the counties, when we meet with them, stressing the importance of cybersecurity at their local offices. ... Basically every time we get together with them there's some cybersecurity component we discuss with them."

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The state has a "central voter file," where it keeps information on people who have already voted in past elections and data from the state Department of Transportation. That file is protected by the state's Information Technology Department, according to Secretary of State Al Jaeger.

"But it's people who have voted, it's not just people who can vote," Arnold said. "In voter registration states, if you're not registered, you don't get to vote. Here in North Dakota, if you're not in our database but you show up and you meet the ID requirements, you're good to go."

That's why the ID requirement is so important, Arnold said.

"Because we do track that driver's license number," he said. "So if somebody uses that same number in multiple polling places it does get caught after the fact."

Last year, Arnold's office requested electronic poll books be made available statewide, so poll workers can catch anyone voting twice. Likely due to budget cuts, Arnold said the Legislature denied the request, so his office will ask again next year.

Grand Forks County already has electronic poll books and it's been using them for early voting. "That's instead of a paper poll book that would be, I don't know, like 5 feet tall to list every single voter in Grand Forks County," County Auditor Debbie Nelson said. "Now you just have like a laptop and it has every person that has voted in the past or is in the NDDOT system. And they're all there."

Much like paper ballots, however, the electronic books aren't connected to the internet.

"And we have a paper system as a backup," Nelson said. "So our results are secure."

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For counties without electronic poll books, Arnold said auditors have 75 days after the election to look for anyone who has voted twice.

Jaeger, who is running for re-election this year, said the request for electronic poll books is part of a larger $12 million request for a new voting system, $3 million of which would come from federal money Jaeger's office gets for security, he said.

"We are recommending that the $3 million we have received be devoted in its entirety to a new voting system," he said, since Information Technology takes care of his office's data. "We rely on them. They get several millions of hits a month on state agencies, so they're the ones that are the gatekeeper in terms of that. Essentially it's all covered. We do not have any concerns that the vote in any way would be altered."

A year after the last election, Jaeger said the Department of Homeland Security informed him there was an attempt to breach the system.

"It didn't gain entry," Jaeger said. "Which means the system works."

Both candidates challenging Jaeger for his office, including Democrat Joshua Boschee and Mike Coachman, an independent, have incorporated election security in their campaigns.

Coachman said he has noticed a "faint trail" of voter fraud across North Dakota in the last 10 to 12 years. Referring to past news stories, Coachman pointed to reports of schools allegedly registering international students, and Minnesota business owners with property in North Dakota double dipping.

"Your vote is the most precious thing you have," he said.

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Coachman said the best way to eliminate fraud is to just enforce voter laws more.

Boschee's concerns related more to how data for the central voter file is gathered and secured. He said he was concerned with how the state notes when a voter has died and to make sure that voter is cleared from the file. He also talked about raising awareness for the voting system.

"Even if we did a tutorial for folks, how voting occurs in North Dakota, we'd increase trust in the system. Because it's a fairly good system, we just need to tighten up some of those loose ends."

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