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North Dakota IT probe to include state election system

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Voters in District 47 mark their ballots at GracePoint Church in north Bismarck about an hour before the polls close in the November general election. 

North Dakota's election system will be included in a large-scale probe of the state's information technology, a move the state auditor says is not an election audit of 2020 results.

State Auditor Josh Gallion's office is in contract negotiations for the statewide IT security assessment that will look at cybersecurity vulnerability including software, hardware and physical infrastructure.

Gallion expects the work to begin around January and to conclude by October 2022. Contractors during the last assessment excluded the election system due to the November 2020 general election occurring at the time, he said.

The probe is covered by a $450,000 budget item approved by the 2021 Legislature. Gallion said the IT assessments go back 10-12 years.

He did acknowledge a "dialogue going on out there" from "certain groups" in favor of auditing the 2020 presidential election results in the wake of Republican Donald Trump's reelection loss, such as in Arizona, which Democrat Joe Biden narrowly won. Trump took North Dakota with 65% of the vote. 

The second-term Republican auditor said "this will not do that. We will not be auditing those results."

"Now because last time we specifically excluded the election system, and with the national scrutiny and attention this go-around, we are clearing the contractors to take a look at that election system," Gallion said. "This is not an election audit. ... It's a system vulnerability assessment that these contractors do. Our goal is to make sure that we are proactively identifying areas where we can enhance, support and improve our already-in-place security measures."

Longtime Secretary of State Al Jaeger said he is "very confident with the voting system that we have and the integrity that's involved." His office will cooperate "whatever way we legally can" with the probe, he said.

The 2021 Legislature considered dozens of voting- and election-related bills in the wake of the 2020 election, a nationwide trend.

Election integrity has been "a hot-button topic," according to North Dakota County Auditors Association Executive Director Donnell Preskey Hushka.

County auditors are curious "what this means for them and what will be required of them," she said of the probe.

The association demonstrated election equipment for state lawmakers earlier this year. Voters last year put to use new election equipment which replaced 15-year-old machines.

The new equipment included 425 precinct tabulators, or ballot scanners; 425 assistive devices for voters with physical difficulty in marking ballots; and 53 central count machines, for processing absentee and mail ballots.

The state auditor said the probe also will look into unemployment insurance and the North Dakota University System campuses.

Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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