Washington — Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill and many of her peers across the nation are dismayed that Congress will break for summer recess without doing more to prevent foreign interference in U.S. elections.

“We were quite shocked when we heard Congress would not go forward with any assistance,” she said.

Merrill and other state election officials have been making the case for months that the nation’s electoral system needs to bolster its defenses against hacking and meddling in other ways, including disinformation campaigns on social media, by Russia or other foreign powers. They have been joined in their calls for increased protections by congressional Democrats.

Those calls grew louder after last week’s testimony by special counsel Robert Mueller, who told lawmakers on the House Intelligence Committee that the Russians and others were meddling in U.S. elections “as we sit here.”

Despite the growing concerns, there’s been little action by Congress on the issue, mainly because the Senate does not want to consider any voting security bills.

The issue flared up last week after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., blocked bills aimed at protecting the electoral system, a move that prompted detractors to dub him “Moscow Mitch.”

McConnell, in turn, seethed on the Senate floor on Monday over what he described as McCarthy-style attacks on his integrity and distortions of both his position on election security and his hawkish history of challenging Russia.

Yet McConnell has said he plans to continue blocking election security bills, in spite of repeated warnings from officials like Mueller and FBI Director Christopher Wray, because he’s concerned they would give the federal government too much power over state elections.

McConnell may also be sensitive to President Donald Trump’s aversion to the issue, which the president views as a Democratic attempt to cast doubts about the validity of the outcome of the 2016 election.

One of the bills recently blocked in the Senate, called the “Duty to Report Act,” was sponsored by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. It would require candidates, campaigns or family members to notify the FBI about assistance offers from foreign governments.

“A duty to report foreign sabotage of our democracy is a matter of simple patriotism and common sense — but now needs to be an explicit legal duty too,” Blumenthal said.

Connecticut Secretary of the State Denise Merrill mark pazniokas / ctmirror.org file photo

While Merrill says Connecticut’s electoral system, run locally by each of the state’s 169 towns, resisted hacking attempts in 2016 and has safeguards in place, she also says the Russians and other foreign agents are becoming more sophisticated in their attacks and more help from Washington D.C. is needed.

The 2016 attack on Connecticut’s electoral system consisted of an attempt to breach a firewall and tap into the state’s list of registered voters.

That failed.

“We turned them back,” Merrill said.

There’s little other Connecticut electoral information to be had on the internet, since towns process ballots locally using tabulators that are not online.

They do send their results to Merrill’s office on a computer. But Merrill said “while there could be errors” in those results “there is no way the results could be manipulated” though hacking. Connecticut also uses paper ballots, considered a safeguard against any attempt to alter the results of an election.

Backup paper ballots got an endorsement this week from Trump who tweeted “Paper Ballots as backup (old fashioned but true!).”

Merrill belongs to an exclusive committee tasked with finding ways to safeguard U.S. elections that includes representatives from the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, and private companies like Microsoft and Facebook.

While she has a special security clearance that allows her to stay in the loop on election security, Merrill said increased federal funding is necessary. Although Connecticut has received $5 million in federal help to update and protect its election system — part of a $380 million election security appropriation — Merrill said that is only a “down payment” on what is needed to keep Connecticut’s voting system secure.

“More money is desperately needed,” she said.

The state must replace its tabulating machines soon, she said, and there are other needs, including training local election officials to confront any new dangers at the ballot box.

Among the stalled electoral reform legislation is a Democratic measure approved by the U.S. House that would send more than $1 billion to state and local governments to tighten election security, but would also demand that states use the money for machines with backup paper ballots.

The bill also calls for a national strategy to protect American democratic institutions against cyberattacks and requires that states spend federal money only on certified “election infrastructure vendors.”

A bipartisan bill that would require internet companies like Facebook to disclose the purchasers of political ads has also languished. So has another bipartisan Senate proposal that would codify cyber information-sharing initiatives between federal intelligence services and state election officials like Merrill.

That bill would also speed up the granting of security clearances to state officials and provide federal incentives for states to adopt backup paper ballots.

The Senate has approved one election integrity bill. It would make it a federal crime to hack any voting systems used in a federal election.

Blumenthal, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and other Democrats will try to include the Connecticut senator’s “Duty to Report Act” in a final National Defense Authorization Act.

The House and Senate have approved their versions of that massive defense bill, but must reconcile their differences before they can agree on a final bill.

Merrill hopes Congress takes action when it returns to work in September, if only to reassure the public about the integrity of U.S. elections.

“We’ve always felt that our elections are sincere and fair,” Merrill said.

She says her “greatest fear” is that “we will not have an uncontested election in this country” because of the real, or perceived, taint of foreign meddling.

Avatar photo

Ana has written about politics and policy in Washington, D.C.. for Gannett, Thompson Reuters and UPI. She was a special correspondent for the Miami Herald, and a regular contributor to The New York TImes, Advertising Age and several other publications. She has also worked in broadcast journalism, for CNN and several local NPR stations. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Journalism.

Join the Conversation

15 Comments

  1. I’m sorry, Secretary of the State Merrill has some nerve. She has allowed voter fraud to occur right under her nose, in the City of Bridgeport. It was under her watch, when a certain Bridgeport politician, and her mother, functioning as Registar of Voters allowed fraud to occur. As a result of voting malfeasense, SOTS Merrill did absolutely nothing. Leaving an individual who was complicit to continue to remain in power. It appears SOTS Merrill has allowed, and continues to allow potential for voter fraud in this state, by her own actions. Such hypocrisy!

      1. Merrill is actually charged with and has the authority to ensure the integrity of free and fair elections, it is her Office’s highest duty to The People, the citizens of Connecticut who she has failed. Merrill has the authority to initiate investigations into violations of the state’s election laws and process.

        She has the ability to cause the investigation of the election corruption that is exemplified by Bridgeport; the entire Absentee Ballot process there is nothing more than a blatant vote farming and harvesting operation for certain selected Democrat politicians run by the Democrat Party and operated by the Democrat Town Commitee. Similar operations harvest votes for the Democrats in New Haven and Waterbury in a similar manner, not sure about Stamford and Hartford but its most probably similar as in all of the Democrat controlled cities in the state.

        Bridgeport’s is just the most blatant, brazen, and obvious. Merrill apparently does nothing about the corruption because it benefits her party. That is precisely what makes her charade in this now a hypocrisy.

      2. Hi Two, we welcome your comments but please note that our guidelines require that comments be limited to 1,000 characters. We will not be able to approve comments that exceed that limit going forward.

        Furthermore, in the interest of fostering deeper discussion, can you provide a citation or two to support your claims about Democratic “vote farming” in Bridgeport, Waterbury and New Haven?

      3. Hi Semmas, thanks for the question. We ask commenters of all political persuasions to provide evidence – either in the form of personal, first-hand experience or a citation of a reliable news source – when making claims that aren’t explicitly mentioned in our reporting or that don’t fall into the category of “general knowledge” on a subject.

      4. This subject is common knowledge for city dwellers in general but especially in Connecticut. This type of activity is all generally known to even casual observers of Connecticut politics. I find it hard to believe that you’re unaware of this type of thing.

        https://www.ctinsider.com/local/ctpost/article/Merrill-Too-soon-to-police-Bridgeport-s-ballots-14202066.php

        https://www.ctpost.com/local/article/Bridgeport-absentee-ballots-becoming-focus-of-2185790.php

        https://www.ctpost.com/local/article/Supreme-Court-defends-3rd-Bridgeport-primary-12782261.php

        http://onlyinbridgeport.com/wordpress/moore-warns-against-absentee-ballot-abuses/

        http://onlyinbridgeport.com/wordpress/here-they-come-absentee-ballot-siren-kicks-in-for-dem-operation/

        This is issue is common knowledge in and around CT cities and well beyond, basic stuff for reporters covering politics especially in Connecticut. Sometimes people only see what they want to see.

      5. Hi Two, thanks for the response. While the links certainly document instances of potential fraud and abuse in the election system, they fall short of justifying the statement that “the entire absentee ballot process there is nothing more than a blatant vote farming and harvesting operation” for Democratic candidates. The initial commenter was operating more than within the bounds of “common knowledge” by claiming voter fraud occurred in Bridgeport. This is documented, established fact. But the claim of “vote farming” remains unsubstantiated.

      6. I know she does not directly hold that power. However, she does have the power to request those that do, to initiate an investigation, and pursue removal from office. SOTS Merrill is weak in ensuring voting is honest, and accurate in the City of Bridgeport, and the entire state. Until she takes the initiatve to fix what is in her own backyard, she has no business denigrating what occurs at the Federal Level.

    1. The Democrats in this state don’t even want to pass voter ID laws to prove you are a U.S. CITIZEN in order to vote. But yet they complain about Russia “supposedly” interfering in our election? Believe me, if Russia interfered, they did it on Hillary’s behalf, not Trump’s. Do you seriously think Putin thinks it’s easier to deal with Trump than Hillary? I don’t think so.

  2. Please do a follow-up article on Luther Weeks’ work with volunteer observations of audits of the elections. Without financing or funding regular audits are done on most elections in randomly selected precincts. This is not enough to ensure against hacking but safe processing of the ballots helps to block the threat of fraud and error. (Full disclosure, I am a volunteer and Board Member of CTVotersCount http://www.ctvoterscount.org )

  3. Bring back the mechanical voting machines. They can’t be hacked by way of the internet. Yes, it does take longer to tabulate the results, but it’s worth it.
    Keep the voter registration rolls on a computer that is NOT connected to the internet.
    Simple.
    Problems solved.

    1. In CT we actually have a very secure, sensible system. Mechanical voting machines belong in the last century, and while they can’t be hacked by the internet, they can be tampered with. Only paper ballots are secure as they can be easily rechecked if needed, and our current voting machines make them easy to use.

  4. I am surprised that Mr Blumenthal is complaining about what the democrats have suggested. What was not brought out in this article is the additional items as amendments that were added after the bill was suggested. More and more bills are not being brought forward because of the amendments that are added after the fact that has nothing to do with the original bill. Bring forth a clean bill and the “republicans” would take the bill to the floor..

  5. Not sure why Ms. Merrill is shocked. Why would a Democratic Congress do anything to provide voter issues? They haven’t done anything about immigration either. They want to talk the talk but not walk the walk. It also gives them something to complain and investigate for another 4 years if a Republican wins again.

Leave a comment