Secretary Williams’ war games, election style proves to be epic

Colorado Secretary of State shakes hands with Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen before her keynote speech at Colorado’s Election Preparedness for Infrastructure and Cybersecurity exercise Thursday. (DHS photo)

The role-playing was, well, EPIC.

When election and cybersecurity officials from Colorado and and other parts of the nation gathered for a training exercise, they were given assignments to play as various election disaster scenarios played out.

Misleading tweets that confuse voters. Equipment outages. Hackers.

Eagle County Clerk Regina O’Brien served as a county election director.

Dwight Shellman, the county support manager for the Colorado Secretary of State’s office, plays the role of a reporter asking tough questions during a mock election disaster drill.  He is interviewing Tammy Patrick of Democracy Fund, while in the background is the SOS’s Steve Bouey. (SOS photo)

Pitkin County Clerk Janice Vos Caudill portrayed her former employee, Dwight Shellman, who now is the county support manager for the Secretary of State’s office.

And Shellman assumed the identity of various Denver reporters, from the Colorado Sun’s John Frank to 9News’ Marshall Zellinger, asking tough questions of election officials.

“I out Marshalled Marshall,” Shellman boasted.

Welcome to war games, election style or, as the exercise was officially dubbed, EPIC — Election Preparedness for Infrastructure and Cybersecurity.

The goal, Secretary of State Wayne Williams said, was to help prepare Colorado election officials for the Nov. 6 election. Clerks, their staffers, county IT officials and others gathered in five separate rooms and were instructed to deal with the scenarios that were unfolding.

Montrose County Clerk Tressa Guynes, left, takes notes while Eagle County Clerk Regina O’Brien, playing the role of a county election manager, gives her opinion during a cybersecurity training exercise. (SOS photo)

“There were tables scattered throughout each room. At each table sat election directors, communication managers, county clerks and IT supervisors engaging in lighting-fast brainstorming sessions to figure out how to handle an election crisis. News crews were there to demand answers,” Denverite’s Esteban Hernandez wrote.

“It was fake chaos that was actually pretty chaotic. There were people constantly talking over one another, simulating how counties would be strategizing in real time while the state’s office worked to figure out what the hell was going on.”

Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams is flanked by New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, left, and New Jersey Secretary of State Tahesha Way, right. (SOS photo)

All moderators wore vests so participants knew who to ask questions of.

County clerks, who weren’t sure what to expect when they arrived at the Inverness Denver hotel, raved about the training exercise afterward.

“EPIC provided a fantastic opportunity to engage with state and national election officials,” said Eagle County’s O’Brien. “Among many things, we gained a better understanding of the full scope of cybersecurity resources available to counties.”

La Plata County Clerk Tiffany Parker told Williams afterward that she, her elections director and the county’s IT director “thought it was one of the best experiences we have had.”

Ouray County Clerk Michelle Nauer, left, consults with La Plata County Clerk Tiffany Parker, right, during a simulated event. (SOS photo)

The IT director, she said, now has a “completely different perspective on our jobs. Thanks so much.”

And Mesa County Clerk Sheila Reiner said she “embraced” her role as the supervisor of a Voting Service and Polling Center, which counties open before an election for those who want to vote in person or drop off their ballots.

“I came away from the exercise with a renewed sense of pride,” she said. “Colorado is the best place to be an elections official.”

The Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, echoed that sentiment during her surprise appearance and speech during the lunch. She noted Colorado’s efforts to make elections secure.

“We’d love to continue to use you as an example of what other states can adopt,” she said.

Among them, she said, her department wants all 50 states to conduct post election risk-limitng audits, which help ensure the accuracy of vote counts, by 2020. Colorado was the first state to conduct a statewide risk-limiting audit, after the 2017 election.

Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams with two staffers from U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner’s office, Grace Reynolds, left, and intern Nicole Frazier, right, at the EPIC exercise. (SOS photo)

The exercise drew almost all of Colorado’s 64 county clerks, members of their staffs and some county officials, from managers to IT directors.

Leslie Reynolds, the executive director of the National Association of Secretaries of State, attended — she played the role of Russian journalists, complete with an authentic accent.

Two secretaries of state, New Jersey’s Tahesha Way and New Mexico’s Maggie Toulouse Oliver, were on hand to observe, as were other Homeland Security officials.

Some of Colorado’s delegation sent staffers to oversee the event. Congresswoman Diana DeGette’s Arden Parker was present. So was Grace Reynolds from U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner’s office, as well as intern Nicole Frazier, who has an interest in cybersecurity.

“This was fascinating,” Frazier said.

At the end of the day, the participants gathered in one room and shared what they learned.  Secretary Williams then addressed them.

Among those attending Colorado’s cybersecurity training were election or IT officials from other states. Third from left is Colorado’s Judd Choate, who helped put the exercise together, and is the immediate past president of the National Association of Election Directors or NASED.  They are, left to right, New Jersey’s Bob Giles, who is president of NASED; Jessica Bowman, deputy commissioner for the Virginia Board of Elections; Choate;  North  Carolina’s IT director, Marc Burris;  Wisconsin’s election director Mike Haas; and Oregon’s election director Steve Trout. (SOS photo)