Making Sure Every Vote Counts
By Elizabeth Foy Larsen
In her job as Hennepin County’s elections manager, Ginny Gelms’s days are consumed by the details that make an election run smoothly and ensure that each vote is counted accurately. She oversees a team that trains volunteers to work the polls, counts the thousands of absentee ballots that come in every election, and implements safeguards to ensure that Hennepin County ballots aren’t hacked by bad actors, a growing concern across the country.
Gelms —a 2018 graduate of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs’ Election Academy —had several other jobs running elections in different localities before joining Hennepin County in 2011. She realized that like most election administrators, she was learning everything on the job, with few opportunities to network and share best practices with colleagues around the country. So in 2015, she signed up for the newly minted Certificate in Election Administration program offered by the Humphrey School.
“I was excited there was a program that fit with my schedule where I could do professional development,” she says. “I know the basics of my job, but in the rush of the day-to-day, we don’t get the chance to step back and take the long view.”
The 12-credit online program—designed to address the need for election officials trained in the latest technology, security issues, and legal and policy challenges facing the American voting system—includes classes at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Offerings include Elections and the Law and Voter Participation, with a new class this fall focused on cybersecurity.
The program is the first of its kind in the United States, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.
“American democracy rests on fair elections, and yet, there is an unsettled sense that the political parties or foreign enemies can infiltrate our elections,” says Larry Jacobs, director of the Humphrey School’s Center for the Study of Politics and Governance. “The mission of our work is to create a profession of election administrators. It is entirely nonpartisan and geared to bringing the science of administration to elections.”
The online program has attracted students not just from Minnesota but also from Kansas, Colorado, Vermont, and Canada; they are able to remain in their jurisdictions while pursuing their studies. So far, dozens of students have enrolled in the program or taken individual classes; nine have completed their certificates.
New Focus on Cybersecurity
New this fall is the program’s course on cybersecurity. Taught by adjunct faculty member and Washington, DC-based election expert Doug Chapin, the class examines the history of cyberattacks on the American election system, with special attention to the 2016 election cycle. Students will explore the types of cybersecurity threats that exist and strategies to protect against them.
According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Russian hackers attempted to break into the voting systems in 21 states, including Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Florida.
Chapin likens most of the efforts to burglars “checking doors and locks but not getting into the house.” Yet the attempted incursions, as well as the proliferation of fake news on social media and warnings of “rigged” election results at the highest levels of government, have challenged public confidence in the system.
Election administrators stress that voting security was a priority long before the 2016 election. But they also agree that the attempted break-ins have made the issue a top focus for the upcoming midterm election in November. The biggest challenge going forward, according to Chapin, is taking a decentralized community of election officials and finding ways for them to collectively share information, and detect and respond to threats.
Chapin sees an upside to the public’s increased awareness of how elections work. “As difficult and divisive as it has been since 2016, there is a greater appreciation across the map of how important elections are,” he says.
This story was adapted from an article in the Fall 2018 edition of Minnesota Alumni magazine.