How Secure Are Our Elections?

How secure will your vote be when you head to the polls on Tuesday and could Connecticut be at risk of hackers disrupting our elections? NBC Connecticut Investigates looked into whether there is reason for concern.

Last year, federal intelligence agencies revealed that in 2016, hackers using Russian IP addresses tried to get into the voting registries of 21 states, including Connecticut.

Connecticut Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, who oversees our elections, said this was a probe where someone was testing our vulnerabilities, rather than a successful intrusion, or hack.

“They didn’t get in, nothing worked,” said Merrill.

Jake Braun, who helps organize the annual DEFCON hacker conference in Las Vegas where participants conducted what they called successful, simulated intrusions of a number of election machines, said hacking of elections systems is a reason for concern.

“The Russians kind of like to poke and prod and then they go back and they look at the soft spots,” he said.

But Braun gives Connecticut high marks for its election security.

“Connecticut is definitely doing a great job,” he said.

Cybersecurity experts, including Braun, say Connecticut benefits by:

  • Having a decentralized town-by-town voting system
  • Double checking votes with post-election audits
  • And having a voter center at UConn that evaluates our elections for security concerns and accuracy

But perhaps the biggest obstacle to hackers attacking Connecticut’s elections is that we still use paper ballots.

“We are pretty secure here in Connecticut. Mostly because we have a lot of paper, ironically. We have paper ballots, we have paper lists, we have backups of backups of backups,” Merrill said.

However, cybersecurity experts tell NBC Connecticut Investigates there are reasons to be concerned about Connecticut’s election security.

  • Our ballot tabulators have not been manufactured in over a decade
  • Our post-election audits randomly sample the vote of just 5 percent of all towns and cities
  • And the registrars’ offices in some smaller towns are using outdated, unsecure computer workstations

“These old operating systems have so many vulnerabilities, known vulnerabilities that need to be fixed. That is a huge hole in security,” said Suzanne Mello-Stark, a computer scientist at Rhode Island College.

Merrill said those issues are going to be addressed. She explains Connecticut recently bought 169 used tabulators as a backup, and the state is considering a more robust post-election audit covering all of Connecticut. Plus, federal funds are also on the way so small towns can upgrade their potentially vulnerable computer systems.

But voters also play a key role in election security, according to Merrill.

“The biggest challenge is the American public. Because I am convinced that a lot of this, whatever the Russians were up to, was to create chaos, and confusion, and distrust,” Merrill said.

Voters NBC Connecticut Investigates spoke with don’t seem worried.

“I think there’s a lot of precautions set up to prevent that,” Maya Gibbs, of Pomfret, told NBC Connecticut Investigates.

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