Christine Stuart photo
Secretary of the State Denise Merrill (Christine Stuart photo)

While experts have dismissed the idea floated by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump that the national election could somehow be “rigged,” Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson seems to be concerned that it could be hacked.

On Monday, Johnson hosted a phone call with members of the National Association of Secretaries of State to discuss the cybersecurity of election infrastructure.

A readout of the call said that Johnson is not aware of any specific or credible cybersecurity threats relating to the upcoming general election, but is making his office available to examine adding electoral systems to the list of “critical infrastructure.”

“I think it’s highly improbable at best that a national system of elections could be hacked. First of all there is no national system of elections,” Merrill, who is president of the National Association of Secretaries of State said Wednesday. “Our election system is extremely decentralized.”

She said there is no credible cyber security threat.

In Connecticut there is no county government, so there are 169 towns who are all in charge of running the election and none of them are connected to the Internet.

“The idea that somehow there could be some national system hack is very unlikely,” Merrill said.

She said different states are using different kinds of election equipment, but Connecticut is using optical scan machines, which are not connected to the Internet.

Alexander Schwarzmann, head of the University of Connecticut’s Voter Technology Research Center, said there is no possible way to connect the optical scan voting machines to the Internet.

He said Connecticut’s optical scan machines also rely on a paper ballot so those can be counted independently of technology.

Merrill said there’s been a lot of pressure on the state to go to some type of Internet voting, but she has resisted. The state purchased the optical scan machines about 10 years ago and have developed an auditing process for the memory cards that are inserted into the machines.

But even if the scanner were to malfunction, voters are still voting on a piece of paper, so there is still a record of how someone voted.

And those memory cards that go into the machine and tell the machine how to count the vote are audited before and after each statewide election, Schwarzmann said.

The memory card is secured in the machine behind a locked panel, metal bar, and tamper proof tape.

Schwarzmann said they check that the programming is correct for the election so a vote for one candidate doesn’t accidentally get counted for another candidate. They also check that all the data on the card matches the final vote tally printed by the machine on Election night and that the sequence of events is proper for the conduct of an election.

For example, if an election closed at 10 p.m., according to the data on the card, they would immediately contact at the Secretary of the State’s office to follow up with the district. Schwarzmann said this happens on occasion when election officials forget to correctly set the time on the tabulator.

Schwarzmann also pointed out there is a strict chain of custody on the machines and the memory cards.

“The machines are sealed with tamper resistant numbered tags,” Schwarzmann said. “It’s important to know, no access was gained to these machines.”

Peggy Reeves, director of elections, said most of the mistakes made in elections can be attributed to “human error.”

Merrill said she wanted to sit down with the media Wednesday to “reassure the voters” that Connecticut’s voting system is secure.

As far as fraud is concerned, Merrill said the concern in Connecticut is whether people are appropriately filing absentee ballots. She said the law says a person must be absent from the state or unable to get to the polls from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.

“There have been questions raised when candidates go help people get absentee ballots,” Merrill said.

In 2003, former state Rep. Barnaby Horton of Hartford was charged with absentee voter fraud after he was accused of inducing elderly voters to cast absentee ballots. He later paid a $10,000 fine to the State Elections Enforcement Commission. In 2013, Rep. Minnie Gonzalez, D-Hartford, lost her Superior Court appeal of a SEEC ruling that she was “knowingly present” when four voters fraudulently filled out absentee ballots at City Hall in 2006.

Then in 2015, former state Rep. Christina Ayala of Bridgeport agreed to a plea deal for voting in a series of elections in districts where she did not live.

Those are just three of the most recent examples of voter fraud cases in Connecticut.

“There’s virtually no in-person fraud where you see someone presenting a false ID,” Merrill said.

She said over the past 20 years there was one incident of someone who attempted to vote impersonating someone else. She said usually it’s error where a checker will cross off the name of the wrong voter or a voter will forget to change their address.

“The biggest problem we have are voters being disenfranchised because they didn’t appropriately register,” Merrill said.