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    Monday, July 22, 2024

    Protests, drones and cyber attacks: Waterford conducts election security drill

    Emergency Management Director Steven Sinagra, right, records responses from town officials in the Waterford Emergency Management Center during the statewide emergency management drill to prepare for safe and secure elections Wednesday, June 12, 2024. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Waterford ― It’s 9:30 a.m on Election Day, and a protest has broken out.

    Residents are headed to the polls, when suddenly, three vans pull up. Doors fly open, and out climb 20 protesters holding signs and flags. They start to block residents from voting.

    That scenario was one of nine that the state posed to town officials Wednesday as part of a statewide election security drill that lasted three hours.

    Waterford was among 147 of the state’s 169 cities and towns to participate in the drill, according to state Emergency Management Program Specialist Alexis Steele.

    Since 2012, the state Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security have staged annual statewide exercises to prepare the state’s 169 municipalities and two tribal nations for natural and man-made disasters through a program called the Emergency Planning and Preparedness Initiative.

    But Steele said this this is the first time the state has held a statewide drill that focused on election security.

    Steele said because of the current political climate, the “state’s goal was to get all the towns thinking about different situations and how to make sure their plans are ready for these situations.”

    “And that they have everything written down for a response to any of these situations,” she added.

    Officials here and in other towns and cities were sent a list of nine scenarios that could threaten the November voting process. They varied from cybersecurity issues, such as an attack on the town’s internet servers, to physical issues like protesting, the presence of an unknown substance or drones flying over polling places.

    There were questions about what the town’s response would be and what department would be responsible for that response. The questions, and scenarios, were meant to help towns look at their election emergency plans and target areas of improvement, said the town’s Emergency Management Director Steven Sinagra said.

    Sinagra was joined by the rest of the town’s emergency management team along with the registrars and town clerk in the town’s emergency operations center. Sinagra said private meetings on election security have been held in town before, but this is the first time the registrars had a seat at that table.

    Police Chief Marc Balestracci, who is also part of the team, said a protest is “one of the fears” about the upcoming election, adding it has been discussed in the management team’s private election security meetings.

    “My two fears would be a fake bomb threat to one of the polling places, and or a protest trying to block access,” Balestracci said. “So, as far as this particular scenario, you’ve got three vans with people blocking the entrances. This is an unauthorized blocking of the road, blocking of the entrance. It’s not permitted. This is clearly a violation of state law.”

    He said the police would first give the protesters the opportunity to voluntarily disperse before arresting them for blocking the road.

    Most of the scenarios featured questions about how town officials would manage public concern over a particular threat to the voting process.

    In the protest example, Balestracci explained that residents would be informed of the protesters blocking the road, and told that the disruption in voting would be brief. He and other officials stressed that a public response would be highly coordinated, so as not to create more confusion or increase fear.

    Another scenario described an election worker discovering an unknown white powder on a group of absentee voting ballots. In the scenario, the ballots are still sealed. Three workers have already touched them.

    “The key here is to keep everybody intact, and not dispersing because we don’t know what the product is yet,” said Director of Fire Services Michael Howley. “So, we’re going to worry about doing a decontamination with the people involved. Fire and EMS is going to be there.”

    Howley said hospitals would be notified, the site whether it was Town Hall or another polling place, would be closed, and an investigation would start.

    “Testing of the product can be done pretty quickly through the state. But still, quickly is, you’re talking four to six hours before we can find out what the product was. But still, we have to go through the process for the health and safety of everybody, that potentially could have been something hazardous.”

    Voters in one district would have to be redirected to another district, officials said.

    Most scenarios necessitated a coordinated response between multiple town agencies. And in most, the Connecticut Intelligence Center, to which towns in the state report threats, would be notified, as well as the secretary of the state, who oversees the voting process statewide.

    Sinagra recorded the group’s responses and will submit them to the state. At the end of the drill, he recapped what the town had just reviewed.

    “What we talked about today are just a handful of things that can happen, so just keep that in mind that those are not the only things you’re looking for,” he said. “If you see something unusual, call somebody.”

    After the exercise, town officials discussed areas where it could improve gaps in its election security plans. Officials did not want those specific areas to be disclosed.

    “I think there were scenarios that we had not considered that we now will,” Democratic Registrar of Voters Bigi Ebbin said. Republican Registrar of Voters Patti Waters agreed.


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