State coming up with ways to spend $5.1 million to prevent election tampering

Hartford — Connecticut's secretary of the state is asking a group of local, state and federal officials to come up with the best way to invest $5.1 million in federal funds to protect the state from cyber security threats during the 2018 election.

States across the country are receiving money under the $380 million 2018 Help America Vote Act Election Security Grant Program to increase election security. Connecticut plans to use its share to help strengthen its cyber security infrastructure.

"The 2018 election will be one of the most challenging elections we've ever had," said Secretary of the State Denise Merrill. "This is the first statewide election following Russia's attempt to interfere with our election infrastructure."

Monday was the first meeting of the Connecticut Election Cybersecurity Task Force, convened by Merrill, to find the best use for the federal funds, but also to help the state, particularly the 169 cities and towns within its borders, devise a plan to beef up cyber defenses. Representatives from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Connecticut National Guard are among those taking part in the task force.

The state expects to get the federal money in the next week or so and must submit a report and line-item budget within 90 days of receiving the money detailing how the funds will be spent. The state has until September 2023 to use the money, and it must match 5 percent of the funds within two years of receiving them. The state's match has already been approved in its budget.

Connecticut was one of 21 states notified last fall by federal officials that Russian hackers targeted its online voter registration system. The hackers scanned, but did not breach the system, according to Merrill. State Elections Director Peggy Reeves likened it to someone "rattling the doorknob to see if they could get in."

Merrill said the state's "cybersecurity defenses held" and the hackers were turned away, but, as a result, 2018 will be one of the most closely watched elections. There's been no evidence that the Russians hacked voting machines or computers that tallied election results during the 2016 election.

Merrill has received a secret security clearance from DHS so that she can review classified information about cyber threats to Connecticut's election system. The agency has made it a priority to give security clearances to state election officials to make it easier to pass on critical information about election security.

It took a year after the 2016 election for Merrill to be notified that Connecticut was one of the states targeted by Russian hackers. Although state election officials across the country frequently asked the federal government whether their respective states were targeted, "The answer always was, 'Well, we can't really tell you,'" Merrill said.

"That's been a real concern for both sides," she added. "We have to figure out how we're going to find out if there is a threat ... that communication structure is a big question in front of us, and is nationally a question."

The hackers targeted Connecticut's online voter registration database, which is not connected to the centralized voter database. Municipalities maintain their own voter lists. Since voting is done by paper ballots, and voting machines are not connected to the Internet, Connecticut's system is relatively secure, officials said.

Connecticut's decentralized election system makes it difficult to hack, but also makes coordination difficult as there are 169 municipalities that vary widely in size and in their level of resources, Merrill said, noting a high priority for the task force will be to help towns strengthen their election security.

The task force also will help facilitate better coordination and information sharing between state agencies that deal with cyber security, she added.

j.bergman@theday.com

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