Merrill: ‘Firewalls worked’ to prevent Russian election hack, but vigilance needed

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Amid renewed concerns about the security of voting systems, states around the country are considering a return to paper ballots and other measures to reduce the chances for outside tampering. 

Connecticut, the Land of Steady habits, never moved away from the old-fashioned paper ballot, which Secretary of the State Denise W. Merrill said should give voters confidence heading into key 2018 elections. 

“Connecticut is already in a pretty good place,” Merrill said. “But we are remaining vigilant.”

Merrill was at a conference for the country’s secretaries of state when Special Counsel Robert Mueller released a 37-page indictment charging 13 Russian operatives with trying to influence and interfere with the 2016 presidential election. 

“We were literally in this top secret meeting,” Merrill said about learning of the indictment. 

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has been warning state election officials to be vigilant about protecting their election systems, but has shared few details because it has classified election systems as “critical infrastructure.” 

The DHS said in September that Russians attempted to hack into election or voter information systems in 21 states, including Connecticut. The hackers weren’t able to get around Connecticut’s safeguards, though. 

 “The best way I can put it is the Russians looked in the windows, rattled the doors and couldn’t get in,” she said. “Our firewalls worked.”

The Boston Globe reported Monday that some states have or are considering returning to paper ballots to protect against hackers altering election outcomes. Merrill has routinely cited security concerns as her primary reason against a shift to electronic voting. 

“Everything is done on paper and done by hand,” she said Tuesday. “That’s the best we can do I think.”

Along with paper balloting, Merrill’s office has yet to endorse any kind of electronic poll book and continues to urge towns to maintain paper voter rolls. 

While election officials are taking a second look at security amid the U.S. Department of Justice investigation into Russian interference, which Mueller is leading, the conduct in Friday’s indictment would fall outside the purview of Merrill’s agency. 

The indictment accused 13 Russians, working for an operation called Internet Research Agency LLC, of using stolen identities and fake media accounts to try and influence U.S. voters. The organization, which had a monthly budget of $1.25 million, also paid for social media ads and held rallies as part of its campaign, the indictment stated. 

The group, according to the indictment, initially began its efforts aiming to keep Democrat Hillary Clinton from winning and to “sow discord” among U.S. voters, but later also backed Republican Donald Trump and Democrat U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders. 

Federal law has restrictions on the ability of foreign entities to influence U.S. elections. State law, meanwhile, largely focuses on disclosure of expenditures and not on election activity. 

Anyone who contributes more than $1,000 in goods or services in support of or opposition to a candidate must disclose that information to the State Elections Enforcement Commission. The state also requires anyone to register as lobbyist and make filings to the Office of State Ethics if they spend $3,000 or more to lobby on an issue. 

Tech companies have spent months pledging to fix their platforms ahead of the upcoming midterm elections this year, and reiterated those promises Friday, according to the Associated Press. Officials with Twitter and Facebook have both said their companies are working to address the issue, according to the AP. 

If the tech companies don’t take action, said Scott McLean, chairman of the political science department at Quinnipiac University, it’s Congress, and not state officials, who can press them for solutions. He also said that will be difficult without Trump’s agreement on action. 

“He has not taken the security threat posed by Russia seriously as a national security issue,” McLean said. “He has turned it into something personal. ..undermining his legitimacy. 

McLean was encouraged to see the heads of intelligence agencies call the interference a national security threat.

“That’s significant even if the president isn’t saying it but the people he relies on it are saying it,” he said. 

McLean said most technical solutions can be addressed at the state level, but cautions state races could also be affected in 2018.

“I don’t think we should assume this is only on the federal level,” McLean said.


Twitter: @Cconnbiz

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