Making Sure Every Vote Counts
A one-of-a-kind program at the U teaches students how to run efficient, open, and secure elections.
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.
Like most election administrators, Gelms—a 2018 graduate of the University of Minnesota’s Election Academy—didn’t grow up imagining a career devoted to the intricacies of voting. “I fell into it,” admits the Iowa native with a laugh. After graduating from Northwestern University in 2005, she was working for a software firm when she spotted a job listing for the Johnson County elections office in Iowa City. Intrigued, she decided to give election administration a try, and discovered that working with voters made her feel that she was tangibly promoting the values of American democracy.
As Gelms moved from running elections in Johnson County to a similar job with the City of Minneapolis and then to 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 trade secrets with colleagues across the rest of the U.S. So, in 2015, she signed up for the U’s newly minted Certificate in Election Administration program, offered by the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs. “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 on deck focused on cybersecurity. The program is the first of its kind in the U.S.
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 U’s Center for the Study of Politics and Governance. “The mission of our work is to create a profession of election administrators. Our certificate program is the first certificate-granting curriculum offered by a major university in the country. It is entirely nonpartisan and geared to bringing the science of administration to elections.”
The certificate program—part of the Humphrey’s Program for Excellence in Election Administration—is run by adjunct faculty member and Washington, D.C.-based election expert Doug Chapin. He became aware of election administrators’ appetite for professional development while working as the director of election initiatives for the Pew Center on the States at the Pew Charitable Trusts. “No matter what the subject was—whether it was military and overseas voting, the greater use of technology in helping voters find their polling places, modernizing voter registration, or increasing access to evidence-based management in the field—there was a gap between the everyday practice of election administration and this notion of a profession,” he says.
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.
Part of the challenge in keeping elections on the up-and-up in the U.S. is that every state conducts its elections differently. Some states, like Minnesota, still use paper ballots, which are hard to hack, while others have gone fully electronic. In some states, including Oregon and Colorado, voting is done entirely by mail.
“There are 50 Springfields in this country, one in every state,” explains Chapin, who also writes the highly regarded Election Academy blog. “The election nuts and bolts and habits and traditions in each community vary wildly. People who know about running elections in Springfield, Texas, might not know anything about how to run an election in Springfield, Minnesota.” This makes it difficult to establish policies and procedures—not to mention expertise—that will keep our national elections safe and credible.
The program aims to bring more uniformity and agreed-upon best practices, along with prestige, to a field that many Americans mistakenly believe is a part-time, volunteer vocation. That appealed to William Cavecche, a voter services specialist with King County Elections in Washington state, who received his certificate in 2017. “I wanted to continue in my career, but when I was looking at master’s programs, there weren’t any with an emphasis in elections administration,” he says.
At the U, Cavecche gained not just practical knowledge but also networking opportunities. “When you are looking at running elections from a nationwide level, it helps you hone your skills,” he says. King County is in the very early stages of exploring the possibility of ranked choice voting and Cavecche says it was helpful to hear from his colleagues, including Gelms, regarding how that option has played out Minneapolis.
New this fall is the certificate program’s course on cybersecurity. Taught by Chapin, the class examines the history of cyber attacks 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. They’ll also hear from key officials about the issues raised by responses to election security threats at the federal, state, and local levels.
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.
Losing voter confidence would be a drastic blow to our democracy, says Heather Heyer (B.A. ’07, M.P.P. ’16), voting process administrator for the Denver Elections Division in Colorado, who received her Election Administration certificate in 2017. “Voting is one of the first steps you can take to be engaged in your community.” She stresses that while the high-profile races get the most attention, voting matters at all levels. “Elections for local county commissioners determine where our tax dollars are going. If you care about the bad intersections in your city, it’s important to know where to go and take action.”
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 coming contest in November. The biggest challenge going forward, according to Chapin, is taking a decentralized community of election officials and finding ways to collectively share information and detect and respond to threats.
It’s a process that is well underway in Hennepin County, which conducts an external postelection audit after every federal election to make sure votes are counted correctly. Gelms says her staff has received training in how to detect email phishing attempts and making sure all rooms that contain sensitive material are protected with key cards and access logs. To counter disinformation, Hennepin County uses Facebook, Twitter, the county website, and press releases to provide accurate information about elections to the public. The certificate program showed Gelms how to do this in a user-friendly way, including the use of infographics.
“I feel that the public can be confident,” Gelms says. “We already had good practices, but we are making them even better.”
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. “For the longest time we’ve talked to people and said, ‘You should vote because it’s your duty.’ Today, more and more people are saying ‘If I care about Medicaid expansion or I think immigration is out of control’—people are understanding that elections are the way we make these decisions.”
Elizabeth Foy Larsen is a longtime Twin Cities-based writer and editor and Minnesota Alumni’s senior editor.