Minnesota election officials express confidence about security on eve of Super Tuesday early voting

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Early voting in Minnesota's Super Tuesday presidential primary begins Friday, and the state's chief elections officer says his office is prepared to face the challenges of disinformation, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, and physical threats and intimidation against poll workers.

"We have a combination of systems in place that almost no other state has to provide trustworthiness in our election results," Secretary of State Steve Simon said at a news conference Thursday. He listed new election security laws, multiple layers of security for voting from home, public testing of the accuracy of voting machines, and a large corps of volunteer election judges from the major parties.

Super Tuesday is March 5, when 16 states conduct presidential primaries. Minnesotans can vote early in person at city and county election offices, or request mail-in absentee ballots to vote from home. Early voters have until Feb. 15 to claw back their ballots if they change their mind for any reason, such as their favorite candidate dropping out of the race. Arkansas, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Virginia and Vermont also start Super Tuesday voting in some capacity Friday or Saturday. Alabama began Jan. 10.

“There is no question that this election year will be among the most intense in history," Simon told reporters. "The presidential candidates will likely inspire strong feelings. People will be passionate. And that’s OK. ... We just want to make sure that it’s channeled in the right direction, in a positive direction, in a non-violent direction.”

Simon, a Democrat, said the “spread of disinformation about our current system” will likely be the biggest election challenge for 2024. While he said debate over how the voting system should operate is normal and welcome, the “deliberate spread of false information is a danger.” He encouraged voters to seek out reliable information from state and local election offices.

Artificial intelligence isn't as much of a threat to election security as it is a way to “amplify existing threats like disinformation,” he said. He added that Minnesota is ahead of the curve because legislators last year provided criminal penalties for distributing deepfake images of a person without their consent within 90 days of an election, if it's done with the intent of influencing the election.

Bill Ekblad, the secretary's election security chief, said he and Simon met with 50 county election teams last week for a tabletop exercise to help them respond to any security threats. No foreign adversaries are known to have tried cracking Minnesota's election systems in 2020, he said. But 21 states were targeted in 2016. Ekblad named Russia as the country that was “rattling doorknobs” without getting in.

Minnesota has seen some instances of harassment, threats and intimidation against local election administrators, but almost none have been directed at the state's 30,000 volunteer judges, Simon said. He added that a new law strengthens penalties for such acts.

Minnesota 16- and 17-year-old have been able to preregister to vote since June, so those who have since turned 18 can vote in the presidential primary. So can convicted felons who have completed their prison sentences, under another new law.

This will be Minnesota’s second presidential primary in recent decades. While Minnesota doesn’t have party registration, voters will have to decide whether to vote in the Republican, Democratic or Legal Marijuana Now primary. While their names will still be reported to the party they choose, Simon said, it's more private than it was in 2020, when all parties got to see who voted for which side. That information remains unavailable to the public.

“I am cautiously optimistic,” Simon said. “Our polling places overwhelmingly in Minnesota are oases of calm, I think, where people can vote in peace and have peace of mind when doing so.”