Wilton forum assesses election security threats

Congressman Jim Himes (D-4th) and Secretary of the State Denise Merrill listen as a member of the audience asks a question during a forum on election security at the Comstock Community Center on Nov. 7.

Congressman Jim Himes (D-4th) and Secretary of the State Denise Merrill listen as a member of the audience asks a question during a forum on election security at the Comstock Community Center on Nov. 7.

Jeannette Ross / Hearst Connecticut Media

WILTON — Election security is not a battle that can be won, “it is something you stay on top of” Congressman Jim Himes (D-4th) told a group assembled at Comstock Community Center in Wilton on Thursday, Nov. 7.

Himes was in town for a discussion on election security with Secretary of the State Denise Merrill; Carol Reimers, president of the League of Women Voters of Connecticut; and Alex Russell, director of the UConn Center for Voting Technology Research.

Since Russian interference with the 2016 election, Himes said the nation’s “security apparatus — Homeland Security and FBI — has learned a lot. … Our outward-facing security services are very, very good.”

What he is worried about more than a “successful penetration of the American electoral system through technological means” are misleading or false ads running on social media outlets like Facebook. One he shared from 2016, that was bought by Russians, said “like and share if you want burkas banned in America.”

“These are very sophisticated injections into the uglier fissures of American society designed to get people riled up and angry,” he said. “How can we as American citizens inoculate ourselves against stuff that might get our passions boiling, our anger boiling but is designed to manipulate us as citizens in a democracy.”

Merrill agreed with Himes that the greatest threat to campaigns is disinformation. While Russian IP addresses were identified as trying to break into Connecticut’s election system in 2016 “they did not get in,” she said. “Our firewalls and other processes held.”

Nevertheless, security is an ongoing issue and the state has received $10 million in federal funding for that purpose. Merrill has put together a cybersecurity task force of state, local and federal officials to advise election officials how best to use that money.

“We are not cyber experts. We need to call in people who know how to go forward from here,” she said. One thing in the works is a virtual desktop that will allow all of Connecticut’s cities and towns, no matter what operating system they may be using, feed into one highly secured system.

While the state is in good shape at present, she said more federal funding is needed since a system overhaul will be needed eventually, and the cost for new tabulators would be $35 to $40 million.

Although the UConn voting center advises state officials on electronic election technologies, one thing Russell does not see the state moving away from is the use of paper ballots. They are the “gold standard,” he said, in that they can be electronically tabulated but also provide a paper trail.

Social media

Building on what the others said, Reimers said “election security is all about voter confidence. If voters lose that confidence, if they feel their vice is not being heard, that’s a bigger problem for society.”

One thing people can do to help themselves is to be more skeptical before accepting at face value ads that appear on social media. She also advised people check their voter registration status and make sure they are not on a purge list.

Merrill said residents can find a wealth of election information online at myvote.ct.gov.

When the discussion was opened up for questions from the audience, one woman asked how the threat posed by Russian propaganda through social media be contained.

Russell put forth two approaches, the first one being education. “Humans are slowly adapting to the device they have with them 24/7 and need to realize not everything you see online is the truth,” he said.

“The other part is to try to provide whatever protection we can through regulation.”

Beyond legislation which the League is working toward, “we have to take responsibility for what we read and say and do on social media,” Reimers said.

Himes said there are major issues at play,in that “a new and immensely powerful technology that we’re still figuring out bumps headlong into a deeply held value of freedom of expression.”

He applauded Twitter for its recent decision to not run political ads and hopes Facebook will do the same. And while they do not face First Amendment issues since they are private companies, he asked, “how much do you want [them] to decide what you see?”

Looking to close the program on an optimistic note, Himes said the problem is twofold: what can happen and what people perceive.

“It’s really important to have conversations. There are vulnerabilities,” he said. But as someone who sees threats early, through his position on the House Intelligence Committee, he is “watchfully optimistic.”

Merrill focused on the technology side. “We are on the job. We’ve got lots of good advice and we’re using best practices,” she said. “Things can always go wrong. It’s how we deal with it in the aftermath.”