HARTFORD, CT—U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Secretary of the State Denise Merrill said states are asking Congress for millions of dollars in federal funding as they work to keep the elections process secure ahead of the 2020 presidential race.
They said Connecticut has been and will continue to be a target for Russian attacks on elections, and cybersecurity needs are increasing all the time as a result.
“This is continuous. This is very serious, and it has actually ramped up even more from my understanding,” Merrill said. “We are now regularly in touch with the security agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, the national security committees and so forth.”
Merrill and Blumenthal spoke with reporters Monday at the Legislative Office Building. They said Connecticut has taken numerous steps to be prepared, and that its practice of using paper ballots fed into tabulators that aren’t connected to the internet has been a huge reason for the state’s secure elections, but that more needs to be done on IT security.
“It desperately needs to be addressed at the federal level,” Merrill said. “The states simply don’t have the kinds of resources that are needed to make sure that we’re absolutely taking care of the defenses we need for our systems.”
Blumenthal said 2016 attempts to influence American elections were only a “dress rehearsal” for foreign assaults still to come in 2020.
“The United States has fair warning,” he said. “There is no excuse for inaction. There is no reason for complacency.”
Blumenthal said he is pushing for “common sense steps” when the Senate is back in session next week, like new funding sources and new laws requiring campaigns to report offers of foreign aid will help maintain public trust in elections.
“We can use Connecticut as a model of where to go, but Connecticut in fact has to go further in funding, in hardening our defenses,” Blumenthal said. “Ultimately the federal government must do its part because only the federal government can really assure the best protection against cyberattacks from adversaries abroad.”
Merrill said $5 million last year from the federal government was a good start as Connecticut constantly is in a “race without a finish” to keep systems continually updated and guarded against intruders.
She said Russia-based attempts to gain access to the state voter list during the 2016 cycle appear to have been aimed at spreading chaos, misinformation and distrust rather than at altering voter records or tallies.
“Those probes did not breach our systems, nothing got in at least in Connecticut that we know of,” she said. “We don’t even know why it was happening, because our systems have backups and it’s a public list. Anyone can get the list, so it was not get secret information.”
Merrill said the need for funding is critical over the next few years as the state’s fleet of around 2,000 tabulators kept in all 169 towns reach the end of their service period within the next few years. New systems will need to be purchased, and it’s unclear how the state will do that but officials prefer to maintain a process that includes paper ballots, she said.
The Accu-Vote tabulator Connecticut uses hasn’t been manufactured since 2007 but there is a supply of used machines on the market.
UConn Center for Voting Technology Research Director Alex Russell said his institute gives the state resources like independent audits of tabulators and security recommendations.
“If there is one thing a state can do to improve their security, it’s to use a voter-verified paper ballot,” Russell said. “If there’s any suspicion that anything has gone awry, you can always return to the voter’s actual ballots and you can retabulate.”
Russell said the UConn center’s audits have shown that the voting machines are accurate 99.9 percent of the time, and that their simplicity makes them easier to secure.
State officials are not worried about the security of Tuesday’s primaries ahead of municipal elections in November, Merrill said. The work now is in preparation for the federal election of 2020.