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Russia’s sights are set on U.S. elections. Can states secure their voting systems in time?

The scope of Russian meddling in the last U.S. election has been outlined in special counsel Robert Mueller’s indictments and the threat confirmed by heads of U.S. intelligence agencies. What can states do to protect American voters and democracy? Judy Woodruff talks with David Becker of the Center for Election Innovation & Research and Denise Merrill, Connecticut's secretary of state.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Russia’s government has set its sight on undermining American democracy and attacking the U.S. election system. The scope of the Russian efforts were recently outlined in indictments filed by special counsel Robert Mueller.

    The threat they pose has been confirmed by the heads of all the U.S. intelligence agencies. Yesterday, the leader of the National Security Agency testified before the Senate that President Trump has not granted any additional authorities to respond to this threat.

    We get reaction now from David Becker, the founder of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, and Denise Merrill. She’s the secretary of state in Connecticut. She oversees the state’s elections.

    Welcome to both of you to the NewsHour.

    David Becker, to you first.

    In sum, what did the Russians do to election systems in this country in 2016?

  • David Becker:

    Well what, we know from testimony from the intelligence community and elsewhere is that they attempted to probe or scan several state systems, probably most notably voter registration database systems.

    Almost all of those scans and probes were unsuccessful. There was one instance in Illinois where they successfully accessed voter data, about 70,000 records or so, in June and July of 2016, but no records were altered or deleted.

    We also know from the intelligence community and from multiple investigations all around the country that there were no successful efforts to change votes or change vote totals or tallies throughout the United States.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Denise Merrill, what about what happened in your state of Connecticut? We know there was an effort made by the Russians there.

  • Denise Merrill:

    Yes, we were one of 21 states, apparently, that were scanned at least by Russian I.P. addresses.

    Again, our firewalls and our systems held. They were trying to get into our voter registration database, which I think is similar to what happened in the other states. I think the good news is, they didn’t get in. And I think that’s pretty much true in all the other states, with that one exception that David mentioned.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Denise Merrill, staying with you, what evidence or belief do you have right now that that they are continuing to try to do that in this 2018 midterm election year?

  • Denise Merrill:

    Well, I do think the threat of Russian interference in our elections is real. I have become convinced of that, not only by what has happened, but what could happen.

    I think, as we’re all on alert now that there could be other attempts, I honestly think that the biggest goal that they have at this point is to sow distrust in the American public in their elections. That may be the most dangerous thing of all.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    David Becker, why are U.S. election systems vulnerable?

  • David Becker:

    Well, the more we rely upon technology, all technology has some vulnerabilities to it. And that’s why it’s important to have systems in place to double-check the technology.

    So, for instance, paper ballots, auditable ballots that can be audited after the election are very, very important. The good news is that about 75 percent to 80 percent of Americans currently vote on paper, and that number is increasing as Virginia has moved to all paper. Pennsylvania is about to move to all paper.

    And about 17 states are considering ways to improve their audits. Systems like that are very, very important to make sure that we can trust the electronic machines that are counting our votes. But the good news is, most states are doing it, and even more states are moving in that direction.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, David Becker, just to clarify, this is a state-by-state situation, right? There’s no federal election overlay, as I understand it.

  • David Becker:

    That’s right.

    In a major federal election, we not only don’t hold one election or 50 elections. We actually hold about nearly 10,000 elections, because all of the local jurisdictions are actually running the elections. That does give us some protection against hacking, because it’s difficult to hack into 8,000 to 10,000 different systems.

    But we do have to be vigilant. Secretary Merrill is exactly right. Russia is trying to do this. The intelligence community is unanimous in that determination.

    And their goal is probably not actually to change vote totals, but rather to get us all to lose confidence in our own election system. So it’s very important that we all understand that the election officials, like Secretary Merrill and her colleagues, are working very hard with the federal agencies and other agencies to secure the election systems, as they have never done before.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, Secretary Merrill, Denise Merrill, what is it that Connecticut needs? What do you need in your state to be sure that there’s not interference this year? And how much support, what kind of support are you getting from the federal government to make sure that that happens?

  • Denise Merrill:

    We, of course, as a state, already have a lot of equipment in place, cyber-hygiene, the kinds of firewalls, I guess you would call them, against this sort of thing.

    But we are getting help now from the Department of Homeland Security. They do have resources that can help, not enough of them, and not enough to go around. So I think we could use more of that. Some states are much further along than others as well.

    And, of course, you know, there are some federal laws that came into play after the 2000 election, which was the last time this sort of thing came up with the hanging chads and so forth. And the Help America Vote Act did provide much of the funding that you’re seeing in place for the current election systems.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Denise Merrill:

    They’re getting older. So, at some point, we should look at replacing some of that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And I think what we have seen in the news in the last few days is questions, concerns about whether the federal government is taking this seriously enough, doing enough to help the states. And I just hear you say, Denise Merrill, that you’re not getting all the help you need.

  • Denise Merrill:

    No.

    And I’m not sure it’s DHS’ fault. I think they are trying to be helpful, but they have limited resources. And I was rather surprised, but not entirely surprised, to learn of the statements by the FBI director, I guess it was yesterday or today, that he didn’t have direct authority to act to prevent some of this.

    So, I am concerned about that. I think the state officials, election officials all over the country are on alert. We’re ready, willing, and able to help. We’re very familiar with this risk assessment kind of thing. We have been doing it for years in elections.

    This is just a new venue and a new kind of a threat. And I’m waiting for a direction from them. I think they could be immensely helpful. We’re doing better. We have a great communications system we’re developing, but they could do more for us, yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

    Very quickly, in just a few seconds, David Becker, what would be most important to help states around the country harden up their systems, so they’re not vulnerable?

  • David Becker:

    Well, there’s unprecedented cooperation between the federal government and the states and the local election officials, but the one thing they really need right now is resources and funding.

    There’s no finish line in cyber-security. When you improve cyber-security, the bad guys get better, too. So, there needs to be better funding streams, both at the state legislative level and perhaps through Congress, provide the sources to Secretary Merrill and her colleagues and all of the election officials at the local level as well.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    David Becker with the federal Center for Election Innovation and Research, and Secretary of State Denise Merrill from Connecticut, we thank you both.

  • Denise Merrill:

    Thank you.

  • David Becker:

    Thank you.

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