Concern Over Election Cybersecurity Risks "Overblown," Says Denise Merrill

Sep 8, 2016

After news of possible attempts to hack election systems in the U.S., along with warnings by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump that this year'’s election could be,– in his words, –"rigged," there'’s renewed attention on protecting the integrity of the election process.

Connecticut Secretary of the State Denise Merrill was recently appointed to the Department of Homeland Security’'s Election Infrastructure Cybersecurity Working Group. She spoke with WNPR about it.

Denise Merrill: We believe that the risks are somewhat overblown, frankly. First of all, there are two different systems, –if you will, surrounding elections.

One is the voter registration lists themselves. They are not at all connected to the voting system as we know it. And one reason it's difficult to talk about all this is because every state does things somewhat differently. They have different machines; they have different procedures. It'’s all kind of loosely bound together by some federal regulations, which were put in place after the famous “"hanging chad"” incident in 2000. But there are significant differences.

So I happen to think that Connecticut is one of the better states, certainly. We follow a lot of what are called the “best practices.”

The biggest one is that we have a piece of paper. We vote on paper. We keep the piece of paper as a backup to the electronic counting that'’s done by a really basic scanner.

These two systems, if you will, have been conflated to think, “"Oh my gosh, could this all be hacked?" “

None of it is on the internet. None of it is connected. I think that'’s really important to know, also.

The reason it'’s a little difficult to generalize is because not all states use the same equipment. There are perhaps 15 to 20 percent of the jurisdictions using touch screens, some of which have a paper receipt; some don't. And so that'’s where the concern has come -- possibly those types of machines would be easier to tamper with in some way. But it'’s still a very, very decentralized system.

WNPR's Diane Orson: Could you talk for a minute about concerns over absentee ballot fraud? I think overseas and military voters may be casting their ballots online? 

Yes -- actually, interestingly -- in Connecticut there was a big push to have us go that direction, and we fought it off, frankly, in my office. Because I still don'’t even like the idea of an emailed ballot. That'’s what that is. It's still not really internet voting.

What we do now is send the ballot to an overseas or military voter, but they have to mail it back, still. And that'’s where the concern is.

It does take a long time to get your ballot back, even though we in Connecticut have our ballot ready 45 days in advance, specifically to make sure that they get to the overseas voters. But there are roughly 20 or so states that do allow them to email it back as an attachment, in which case then it's printed out, and then it's counted. And our concern there was you pretty much lose the privacy of your vote.

Let'’s talk a little bit more about the fact that U.S. elections are locally run. Does it make sense that there are all these different systems with varying degrees of security?

That is a really good question. And as you'’re seeing play out right now, it's both a blessing and a curse. That fact is -- it being this decentralized, and this controlled locally -- is actually great if you'’re worried about cybersecurity. Because it would be very, very difficult to imagine somehow controlling 9,000 or so jurisdictions, most of which are county-level.

We'’re unique in that we don'’t have counties. So, there'’s that side to it.

On the other the hand, as I have been very aware in the last few years, keeping standards, keeping the same experience for every voter at every polling place becomes extremely difficult because its all paid for at the local level as well. Kind of a plus and minus sort of thing.

So what happens if there are concerns in the presidential election in November over suspicious results or the possibility of tampering? What would happen?

That’'s a great question. I think the biggest danger in all of this is that this discussion is creating, potentially, a lack of confidence in the American public in our voting process. That could be the greatest damage that comes from all this.

And the reason I say that is because, let'’s say, there is a close election in some or many states, or the perception that there'’s a close election, or some sort of chaos that’'s created around questioning the results in some way. That, under our process, under our constitutional law, would be brought as a state-level lawsuit and it would have to be in a number of states. If for some reason, even if those were thrown out of court, for example, it could be appealed. The appeal would eventually go to the Supreme Court as it did in 2000.

And as I’'ve been pointing out to people, its rather odd that right now we have only eight Supreme Court justices. So there could be a four-four split in which case, the decision about the election would go to the House of Representatives.

I don'’t think its far-fetched to assume that that might happen.