[Image via me!]
Last week, the State of Colorado hosted a cybersecurity tabletop exercise outside of Denver entitled Election Preparedness for Infrastructure and Cybersecurity (EPIC TTX) … I was fortunate enough to be there as an observer along with electionline’s Mindy Moretti, who has this report in the latest electionlineWeekly:
There was a fire, a tornado, and the heating system went down in the ballot-tabulation room. There was fake news on social media and real news media in the room. Polls opened late and stayed open late.
The state voter registration database went down. Tabulation machines failed to tabulate. There were concerned citizens and advocates demanding to know what was happening.
And then there was Olga from Sputnik News who seemed overly curious about everything.
Those were just some of the scenarios and situations faced by Colorado county elections officials and staff participating in the secretary of state’s EPIC table top exercise last week in Englewood.
The day-long EPIC TTX was based on a similar tabletop training exercise conducted by the Belfer Center in March of this year with 38 state elections officials and was designed to help prepare county elections officials and their staff for any and every possibility.
And based on reactions from county clerks in attendance, the effort of the secretary of state’s office was well worth it and many county clerks left Englewood vowing to put what they had learned into action immediately.
“I immediately met with my county administrator to discuss cyber security within my office and throughout our county offices, for both right now and what it could look like in the future,” said Eryn Wintz, Mineral County clerk and recorder. “I also had a very honest discussion about my security and contingency plan that included actual practices and how to protect myself and by reflection the state by not being the “weakest link” because of limitations set by logistics or financial restraints.”
The morning was divided into two sessions. In the first hour-long session, the groups drilled through problems and situations that could arise in the five months leading up to Election Day. During the second one-hour session it was Election Day.
Moderators, which included elections officials from other states, national association staff and staff from the secretary of state’s office, helped move the sessions along. All participants were assigned a role for the day – some of those roles different from who they are in real life.
Pulling off the EPIX TTX was a massive undertaking for the secretary of state’s office, but one that seems worth the effort. According to Judd Choate, director of elections, things went amazingly well.
“Better than even my most optimistic expectations,” Choate said. “Our county election officials have been effusive in their praise. More importantly, I know they walked out with a long ‘to do’ list that will lead to more security Colorado elections. So it was a huge success.”
Choate wasn’t always so sure it was going to be the success that it was though.
“Trevor Timmons (Colorado CIO), Caleb Thornton (Colorado elections legal advisor), along with Jennifer Morrell (Democracy Fund), Amber McReynolds (National Vote at Home), Dan Volkosh (Denver Elections) and I came home from the Belfer event in March and decided to roll it out for this election,” he explained. “That might have been a strategic error – because the time commitment was extraordinary, but I’m pleased we did it.”
There were three informal teams for 1) scenario development, 2) logistics, and 3) counties, moderators, and observers (press too) coordination.
“We will make several adjustments for future EPICs, but the basic format and scenarios worked very well,” Choate said.
The tabletop exercise cost about $100,000 because the state paid for all county and moderator travel. Over 300 people attended, most of whom needed reimbursement (hotel, meals, mileage). The state will use the new HAVA funds to pay for the training.
Following lunch, where Department of Homeland Security Secretary of State Kirstjen Nielsen addressed the gathering and called Colorado’s elections the most secure in the nation, the participants met based on their roles during the exercises to debrief and come up with five to six takeaways from their roles.
Communications and takeaways
The big takeaway from the day seemed to be communication. Either with the press, between the state and counties or between county clerks and their staff and the public, the importance of communication was brought up time and time again.
“Well since they hammered communication, I have to say that, right? No, really I think communication is vital,” said LaRita Randolph, Dolores County clerk and recorder. “Whether it means County to State, County to County & County to voters. We all need to be on the same page & good communication is the only way for that to be accomplished.”
Interestingly enough, Choate said that one issue the secretary’s office had in pulling off the TTX was with the media.
“The press were a bit more demanding than we anticipated,” Choate said. “We will adjust to that in the future. At least the coverage was good.”
“I thought I was a good communicator, but I learned that I have some work to do especially around involving more of our staff and others in our County Government,” Mitchell said. “Another valuable thing for me was to role play another position so that you learned about a different job than you normally do.”
Alton Dillard, the Denver Elections public information officer (PIO), said for him it was interesting to interact with elections officials from jurisdictions of different sizes and learn what their experiences working with the media have been like. In a reversal of roles, Dillard portrayed a reporter during the EPIC TTX so he got to ask questions of participants that were based on the ones he gets on daily basis.
“The way it was set up, a lot of the people playing the PIO role weren’t PIOs in real life so it was an eyeopener for them too,” Dillard said. “As a 13 year Elections PIO, (and Dean of the Colorado delegation when it comes to specializing in election communications) EPIC also illustrated the evolving narrative around elections especially in today’s social media era and with elections security being front page news. The scenarios from the injects that occurred at EPIC could also occur overnight and that’s why it’s important to monitor your social media accounts constantly.”
Several county officials were overheard mentioning that they wished they had brought their PIOs with them to the event. Dillard said the one thing he hopes the clerks take back to their PIOs is the importance of making sure that they are looped in early and often and keeping their communications plan updated.
“Your communicator can’t be the last to know what may be going on in today’s environment,” Dillard said.
In addition to communication, there were lots of important takeaways from the day, but for Wintz from Mineral County, she said it was hard to just pick one.
“Perhaps the most important for me was a simple call to up my game. That encompasses so many things. The reality of the importance, the very real threat of infiltration, the target on Colorado that could by default be directed to the smallest and most rural counties,” Wintz said. “Also the appreciation for the people I have the privilege of working with, their tenacity, intelligence, and supportive nature.”
“We learned that it’s one thing to have a plan,” Choate said. “It’s another altogether to convey that plan to county election officials. So, we need to work on our communication strategy for basic election security as well as acute circumstances that require immediate action.”
In addition to luncheon remarks by the DHS secretary, there were more than 15 DHS officials at EPIC moderating, observing and participating the training.
“Their contributions were essential to our success,” Choate said. “David Stern led a team of seven DHS trainers who flew in to serve as moderators (at no cost to us). They were especially important. I’m humbled by how much effort DHS is expending on helping states and localities secure elections. Between funding EI-ISAC (interstate information sharing), running and assisting in elections TTXs, and the extraordinary resources they have to offer, the DHS is clearly all-in on election security. The DHS election team even ripped off some fantastic “Last Mile” posters for us that each county took home to post in their office.”
Choate said the secretary’s office they would like to do regional versions during one of their training cycles and do a full EPIC, with all counties represented on the odd years going forward.
The clerks in attendance that we spoke to all highly recommended that those states that haven’t done tabletop exercises like this really should.
“As Election Administrators, we have to take voter confidence seriously,” Randolph said. “Not just their perceptions, but also facts, and keep our elections secure.”
Mitchell from Chaffee County said that in addition to states doing a similar tabletop exercise, counties too should consider putting on their own TTX.
“Every state should replicate this exercise and adapt it to their voting model and procedures. It was so beneficial,” Mitchell said. “I want to do a scaled down version at the County level.”
And Choate said the Colorado secretary of state’s office is ready to help!
“The first thing I would say is – go all out. Your locals will learn more if you have them live it,” Choate said. “Second, there are a lot of people out there who can help. I’m happy to help for one, but DHS is a great resource, and all the election officials around the country who have been doing these themselves (NC, IL, WI, WA, WV, etc.). It’s a lot of work, so take your time and do it right. But, those of us who have lived it can help you cut some corners without missing the essential learning experience.”
I can confirm first-hand that it was an amazing event; 180 days of chaos packed into two frenetic hours. The discussions during and after the exercise were incredibly valuable and I have little doubt that everyone in attendance learned a lot about what they need to be ready for – and respond to – whatever life throws their way on and before Election Day. Kudos to the Colorado SoS for hosting this event and thanks as always to Mindy for sharing the news. Stay tuned!