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State leaders discuss election security at annual meeting

July 9, 2017 at 5:56 PM EDT
A commission created by President Trump to look into potential voter fraud and Russian interference with the U.S. election have brought the annual meeting of the National Association of Secretaries of State this weekend to center stage. The association is comprised of officials who oversee elections in all 50 states. Denise Merrill, the association's president, joins Hari Sreenivasan.

HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR:  This weekend in Indianapolis, the National Association of Secretaries of State is holding its annual meeting.  Those are the officials who oversee elections in all 50 states.

It’s usually not a meeting that garners a lot of attention, but more important this year.  One: just recently a new Election Integrity Commission created by President Trump requested all 50 states to provide detailed personal voter information to figure out, they say, how to protect the integrity of the vote from fraud.  Most states are refusing to comply either partially or completely because handing over some of this information violates some state privacy laws.

The other reason we’re paying attention to what secretaries of states do is the specter of Russian hacking.  The former secretary of homeland security testified to Congress under oath last month the Russians did indeed attempt to hack voter registration software during this past election.

Joining me now from Indianapolis to discuss this is Denise Merrill, president of the national association and Connecticut’s secretary of state.

Thanks for joining us.

From every indication, it seems that President Trump believes Putin in his denial that the Russians meddled in the election.  Do the secretaries of state believe the evidence presented by the Department of Homeland Security?

DENISE MERRILL (D), SECRETARY OF STATE, CONNECTICUT:  Well, part of the problem here is we don’t really know what that evidence is because we don’t have security clearance so we are kind of the last to know and lot of this we read in the paper.

SREENIVASAN:  So, the secretaries of state are reading this information in the paper at the same time we are.  Meaning, you don’t have any kind of hot line that you are getting a phone call on, saying, hey, we think you might have been hacked.

MERRILL:  No, and that’s been sort of a problem.  Although 50 states do all kinds of, you know, scans of their voter files.  And let me be clear: the only thing really at risk here is at all is the voter file, the registry of all the voters in each state, and they’re kept on a statewide basis.  But none of the actual election equipment is ever touched.  It’s not on the Internet.

SREENIVASAN:  And as some of the reporting earlier pointed out, the damaging or changing that voter file, or even causing some confusion, that can cause things like delays at the polls or perhaps create disincentives for people to show up.

MERRILL:  Indeed, it could.  And I think that’s the biggest damage that could be done would be the confusion that would result, although we all have paper backups of all these lists.  So, the real damage is more to — I guess you’d say the integrity of the vote, the confidence that people have that their votes being counted has been the biggest loser in this whole thing.

SREENIVASAN:  You had closed door meetings during your conference with the Department of Homeland Security, with the FBI.  With the informational that they presented to you now, are you confident that all our systems are secure?  That Russia or any other foreign countries cannot do this to us again?

MERRILL:  Well, I think we’re as secure as we can be.  We’re in the electronic age.  You know, no one is entirely safe.  We have lots of users of these systems.  The local officials are the ones that actually keep the list and they log on to these systems.

But I think the best defense against all that is the fact that they are kept by 50 states in 50 separate databases and all the election results and everything are tallied locally.  So, it’s an extremely decentralized system and I think that’s a blessing in the end.

SREENIVASAN:  You know, turning now a little bit to the Voter Election Commission, rooting out fraud in the system seems the thrust of why the commission was set up.  Do secretaries of state believe the president’s claim that 3 million fraudulent votes were cast this election to his opponent?

MERRILL: I would say, of course, that differs state by state.  But every state that I have seen statements from have said no, they do not believe that there’s anywhere near that number.  Republicans and Democrats alike have said that yes — does fraud occur occasionally in their state?  Yes.  Is it prosecuted?  Yes.  But it is nowhere near the numbers that they are talking about.  It’s seen as a — widely seen as a very, very overstated number.

SREENIVASAN:  OK.  You know, as you just pointed, one of the strengths of the system is the fact that it’s so decentralized.  Are you concerned that a centralized voter file which in essence is what would happen if the administration got all of this information from all of these could be held securely?

MERRILL:  I’m deeply concerned about that personally.  And I don’t speak now for every secretary of state.  As you said, it’s very decentralized.  But I’m deeply concerned about that.  It seems like a very odd moment when we are talking about the dangers of cyber security to be centralizing a voter file from how, and now I’m told its on a computer at the White House, which also does not fill me with confidence.

SREENIVASAN:  All right.  Denise Merrill, president of the National Association of Secretaries of State, thanks so much.

MERRILL:  Thank you.