States beefing up election protections

Thu, 08/01/2019 - 6:00pm
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Denise Merrill, Connecticut’s Secretary of State, came into the offices of The Block Island Times looking for a quiet land line to do a phone interview with National Public Radio. The phone interview was going to be about election tampering and cyber-hacking. The phone interview never took place, but The Block Island Times took a few moments to speak to her about the security of next year’s elections.

More than cyber-hacking or voter fraud, Merrill said she is most concerned with the idea that so much suspicion has been sown about election results that voters may never trust the outcome of local and national elections again.

Merrill said she felt the 2018 elections were some of the most accurate and safest ever held, but as for people believing the results, especially if a voter’s preferred candidate lost, “The damage has been done.”

Merrill is in her third term as Secretary of State in Connecticut, and she is also the past president of the National Association of Secretaries of State, a group she described as “non-partisan” given that all secretaries of state, regardless of party, are involved in election issues.

That group, as well as Department of Homeland Security, and others, have been seeking to make elections more secure since 2016. Since 2016, she said, elections have been viewed as a “critical infrastructure” worth protecting by the federal government, much in the same way that water supplies, the power grid and dams and bridges are considered essential to commerce and safe travel.

What is indisputed about the 2016 presidential election, she said, “was that was the first time we saw a cyber attack on our election. DHS said they had detection in 21 states” of attempts to hack into voter registration rolls. There is no evidence that the hacking was successful or altered the outcome of any of the elections, but DHS could only verify that the attempts had taken place. DHS calls this “rattling the doorknobs,” said Merrill, because “they didn’t get in. We didn’t see anything actually happen. The Mueller report confirmed what we had already been told.”

Merrill said that attempts to tamper with the American election system have not stopped. “It’s happening as we’re sitting here. This is like a race without a finish.” She said the attackers include the Russians, Chinese and Iranians, among others. Again, she emphasized that the goal was not to necessarily alter election results, but to sow “a lack of trust and divide people, so our work is never done. The larger question is the lack of trust in elections on the part of the American people.”

She said that “since World War II elections have been a settled issue,” but no longer. That said, she said that “all sides of the political spectrum continue to defend against these wider attacks.” She said that the federal government has allocated $380 million spread out across the 50 states to help beef up protection for the election process, noting “the highest risks are at the local level.”

Merrill said the work is paying off. She expected the 2020 elections will be well-protected, and voter fraud should be minimized, she said, because of new restrictions and the fact that voter lists have been cleaned up.

“2018 was the best election we’ve had in years. The states are getting better and better at it,” Merrill said. When asked if she was optimistic, she said, “I am. I think we’ve done more than ever on cyber-security. I’m confident we can get out in front of this.”