After Trump-Putin Summit, A Look At How States Are Preparing For Midterm Elections

Jul 19, 2018
Originally published on July 19, 2018 6:33 pm
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Also this afternoon, the White House said President Trump has asked his national security adviser to invite Russian President Vladimir Putin to Washington this fall. If Putin accepts, he'll be here in election season. Yes, the same election that U.S. intelligence leaders say Russia is trying to target.

Well, to get a sense of what the people charged with safeguarding the November midterms make of all this, we have called the secretary of the state of Connecticut, Denise Merrill. She's a Democrat, and she is Connecticut's top elections official. Denise Merrill, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

DENISE MERRILL: Thank you very much.

KELLY: So inviting Vladimir Putin to Washington and to the White House. Is this a good idea?

MERRILL: Not helpful. I have to say it was interesting that I and my colleagues, the Democratic and Republican secretaries of state across the country, were in a national meeting last week. And on Friday, we were told by the leadership of the Department of Homeland Security that the threat of further Russian attacks on our election infrastructure was very real and ongoing and that there was no longer any doubt that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.

KELLY: It is a consistent message that we have been hearing just in the last few days from director of National Intelligence Dan Coats. What was the conversation about cybersecurity like at this conference? You were there with - this was other top election officials from all over the country.

MERRILL: That's right. And this is new for us to some extent. It was about a year ago that we were informed and Congress was informed that 21 states saw from both the FBI and the DHS, Department of Homeland Security - they saw 21 states had had attacks, I guess you'd call it, on our voter registry systems. It's important to know that the voter registry system is very different than the machines that actually tally your vote. Nonetheless, 99 percent of them were turned back.

So it's not like they were successful except in one state. And even there we don't know if anything actually happened. Nonetheless, it does mean that this is a new front in a war that has no end in a way. Everyone's talking about, how secure is 2018? But my question and the question I think of many of us is, how do we permanently in an ongoing way continue to protect our systems? And that's the question.

KELLY: I mean, you've talked about an attempt in Connecticut, an unsuccessful attempt but still an attempt to tamper with servers there. What exactly happened, and are you confident that it has been fixed?

MERRILL: Yes. I mean, we get - you know, just to put it in perspective, we get about a million hits a day of people trying to get into our server.

KELLY: Really, a million?

MERRILL: Yes. And this is typical. Most of it is probably commercial people trying to get the voter lists so that they can get the information from the voter file for commercial purposes. What happened was DHS told us after the fact, actually, that some Russian agency IP addresses were identified as some of the ones trying to get in before the election. So that was the tip-off. That's what happened in our state. There were different versions of this in the other 21 or the other 20 states. But the good news is of course they didn't get in.

KELLY: Right.

MERRILL: It's sort of like rattling the doorknob. And we don't really know what the goal was. And, you know, no one's talking about that.

KELLY: So what needs to happen between now and November for you to feel confident that you've done everything you can to safeguard election security there in Connecticut?

MERRILL: A lot has already happened. We now have an ongoing coordinating committee with the Department of Homeland Security. They have offered and states have received assistance in doing what they call cyber cleansing, trying to identify vulnerabilities. They will give us those reports, and we will put in place other systems if necessary. But what comes home to me is that this is like a race with no finish line because like your own computer, you know, you might get a virus on it. OK, you eradicate that virus, but there's always another one around the corner.

KELLY: Right. You fix one thing, and then it's the next vulnerability that's going to be exploited.

MERRILL: Yeah. And we just need to be on top of this. And I think, you know, the last time there was any funding or resources devoted to elections in this country was probably Help America Vote Act. And that's over a decade ago.

KELLY: Well, that prompts my last question in the moments that we have left. Are you getting the help that you need from the federal government?

MERRILL: Well, we did - they did just release the last of the HAVA funds. It was about $390 million across the country. For example, Connecticut will have $5 million. And it will be helpful. Bear in mind, you know, there's only three months or four months until the election. So not a lot of time to do things like replacing equipment, which maybe some states need to do. But, you know, elections - we've been doing this for a long time. We have a lot of checks and balances.

KELLY: Right.

MERRILL: Most states have paper lists and paper ballots.

KELLY: Right.

MERRILL: Some states do not, and those need to pay attention. But we're on top of it. We're working...

KELLY: Denise Merrill.

MERRILL: ...Very closely.

KELLY: Denise Merrill, thank you very much.

MERRILL: OK, thank you.

KELLY: That's Connecticut Secretary of the State Denise Merrill. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.