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State making plans to protect elections from cyber threats, pandemic

Secretary of the State Denise Merrill is scheduled Monday afternoon to announce a plan to secure election systems across the state from cyberattack this fall and prepare polling places to safely operate during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Deputy Secretary of the State Scott Bates outlined the challenges the state faces to ensure a safe and secure election in an op-ed published Monday in The Day.

“We're trying to do all we can do before this election to address the twin challenges of the pandemic and cyber security,” he told The Day on Sunday.

Bates said the state will be using more than $15 million in federal funding to ensure outside groups can not interfere with the election and to make polls safe for both voters and workers.

“There are challenges but fortunately we have the time and resources to address them,” he said, adding that the state, municipalities and members of both parties are working together to ensure the security and safety of the election process and prevent disruptions.

Despite the challenges, Bates said there will be in-person voting this fall with greater access to absentee ballots. He said he does not foresee an election with only mail-in ballots.

Bates said his office will be talking to all 169 towns and cities about how their polls will operate in regards to social distancing, cleaning regimens and adhering to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention protocols. He said towns and cities will have to present layouts of the polls and details such as the number and placement of poll workers.

With a large number of poll workers often 60 and older, Bates said efforts are not just being made to protect them but to recruit a “new generation of poll workers.” He said more poll workers may be needed to ensure social distancing guidelines. He said he has also heard from people who want to know how they can serve their community and their country when it comes to elections.

Bates said his office will also be working with the registrars of voters and information technology employees in each municipality because each town is “an access point” into the state’s election system.

“We have to make sure the towns are as secure as possible,’’ he said.

Bates also announced that the Secretary of the State’s office is partnering with the National Guard to assess the cybersecurity of the elections infrastructure of each municipality.

He said this will help target the greatest vulnerabilities in the elections' system. He added his office has already identified about 20 municipalities that have chronic issues with their connections to computer networks necessary for the election process. Bates could not immediately say if any of these are in southeastern Connecticut.

He said his office is providing upgrades to networks in these towns to eliminate cyber “hot spots” that present potential security risks, and will provide matching grants to municipalities that invest in upgrading outmoded workstations.

Bates said elections “can be taken advantage of by malicious actors who want to undermine the confidence in our election system.”

Bates said that while that does not likely mean that voting results can be altered it could mean interference such as operating fake election registration websites or posting online that a poll is closed due to the pandemic.

“Authoritarian regimes opposed to American democracy continue to launch cyberattacks against election systems in the United States. They possess the capabilities to significantly disrupt the 2020 election cycle, thus undermining public confidence in the fairness and accuracy of election results,” Bates wrote in his op-ed. “Disinformation campaigns being run by these authoritarian states (Russia, China, Iran, and others) are currently sowing division and discord in the American electorate and can be weaponized to spread false information about the election process itself. We can expect these efforts to intensify, all in an attempt to undermine public confidence in the election system and by extension in democracy itself.”

j.wojtas@theday.com

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