Protecting The Vote: An Interview With Conn. Secretary Of The State Denise Merrill

Mar 30, 2018

An effort is underway in Connecticut to get people who were displaced by Hurricane Maria registered to vote. About 4,000 people from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands have relocated to the State after the hurricane, and Secretary of the State Denise Merrill is working with a coalition of groups to get them all registered.

Secretary Merrill recently spoke with Morning Edition Host Tom Kuser about this effort and other work being done in the Office of the Secretary of the State. Below is a transcript of their conversation.

Secretary Merrill, who is involved in this coalition?

What we’re doing is reaching out to those groups that are already working with families, resettling them in various cities and towns in the state. So we’re just kind of trying to do some, I guess I describe it as training, because, you know, registering people to vote has to be done very carefully, of course. And make sure, you know, that they’re citizens, that they have the correct addresses and things. But we think of this as a way we can help make them feel at home. So as part of the resettlement process, we want them to remember that just because they’ve lost their home doesn’t mean they’ve lost the right to vote.

And I understand the effort’s been underway for about five or six weeks, or closer to two months, maybe. How many of these new residents has the program registered so far?

We’re doing voter registration with groups at things like parades and festivals and other, you know, sort of celebratory events. So, we’re not really tracking how many are registering. There are a number of them registering through our DMV. I just spoke with them yesterday, and, you know, many of these folks when they come here, they have to change their driver’s license. And so at that time, they’re asked if they would also like to register to vote. Many of them are saying yes.

Have you run into or have you heard of any unusual challenges?

Well, I guess the challenge really is, they’re busy looking at everyday subsistence. They’re looking for shelter and food and a place for their children to go to school. So, of course this is not the first thing on anyone’s minds, nor should it be. But it’s just kind of a gentle reminder that we’re sort of welcoming them here. I think of it as almost like, “You belong here. You’re living here now. That means you do have a right to have a voice.” And you know there’s just been a lot of questions about how this has been handled at the federal level. And these are people that now will have a voice, even in federal elections. Because once they come here from Puerto Rico – in Puerto Rico they don’t have the right to vote for federal elections because they’re not a state – but once they move here, they do have, and I think they’re an important voice.

I understand that participation, voter participation in Puerto Rico is really very high, something like 95 percent. And I’m wondering if you’re finding, or have you heard feedback from those doing the registering, that they’re sensing equal enthusiasm for voting in Connecticut elections.

You know, it’s a fascinating question, one that I’ve been doing focus groups about and talking to for years. Because it’s true of many of the Puerto Ricans who move here from Puerto Rico. There’s a much higher voter participation there. It’s a very different process in Puerto Rico, which is one of the reasons that we’ve tried to reach out. Because in Puerto Rico, there’s one election, it happens once a year. Here, we have a lot more, we have primaries, we have referendum, we have local elections, state elections. And I think it’s much more kind of confusing for them, because in Puerto Rico, Election Day is a huge celebration. That’s what they tell me, that, you know, it’s a day off from work. Everyone votes, then everyone goes home and has a big, sort of a festival. And it’s much more celebratory, which sounds wonderful to me. I mean, I’ve always thought maybe we should have it on July 4th or something, because it would make more sense. And so I get the impression that when they get here, they’re not even sure when the elections are happening because it’s so differently promoted.

I would vote for that too. Let’s have a day off and have the election that day.

Well, as long as it’s a day off that we already have. Another suggestion has been Veterans Day. It’s a week later, and many states have Veterans Day off, it is a federal holiday. So, it reminds me that there would be different ways that perhaps people would feel more included if we had it on a day like that.

Well, come election time, whichever election it might be, and we’re talking about I guess midterms this year, with lots of local elections as well, will the polling places themselves have the resources that they need to help these new voters through the process.

Yes, we’re going to do a YouTube video in the Spanish language on exactly how you vote. What the machines look like, we’ll have a little walkthrough, perhaps with some celebrities from local radio stations. You know, showing people what you’re going to encounter when you come to Election Day.

We’ve heard so much recently about private information being shared or hacked, and we’ve heard about Atlanta and Facebook, etc. Have there been any attacks on Connecticut’s electoral system since the last election that you know of?

Well, no, and it’s…it’s interesting because you have to be very careful, the language you use. We were told, actually we weren’t told, we heard first at a congressional hearing that Connecticut was one of twenty-one states that had been, I think “scanned” was the word they used, or maybe they did use the word attacked. What it actually was according to everything I can actually understand is that they identified some Russian agency IP addresses that were coming into our state IT database, which is where our voter list is housed, and trying to get in. Every time I ask about this, cause I’m not an IT person, so I kept saying, “Well, what is that, exactly?” Is it a scan, is it what they call a ping, which is just like simply traffic coming in, or was it an actual attack? And so, it depends what words you use. I think it was kind of a scan, where they rattle the doorknob, and see if they can get in, and it’s not entirely clear what they were after. But they did not get in. We have not identified any more Russian agency IP addresses since that time.

Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut announced recently that the new federal budget includes $380 million for election security grants. Do we know how much of that allocation will be coming to Connecticut?

Yes we do, we will be getting about $5 million and believe me it is very welcome.

What will the funds pay for?

Well, for example, we have to keep up with our firewalls and security systems, and, you know, this attack or scan or whatever it was is not gonna stop. So you really have to keep up with your different products that you use to do what they call “cyber-cleansing.” To look at our systems, make sure they’re secure. To put in new double authentication systems so that they’re more secure. And actually in Connecticut, the biggest problem we have is we have 169 towns. And although our voter file is not technically on the internet, because we have an older “closed-loop system,” so no one else can get in, it’s on it’s own separate line. But there’s a place where someone can get in in 169 towns at one drop point. So we have to also look at the security of all the towns, including some of the tiny little towns that don’t even have an IT department. So these funds will help us secure the system, you know, overall. It’s very much needed, and I’m very glad to see that it happened.

In Connecticut there are a few bills making their way through the General Assembly that you’re supporting. One’s about voter privacy, and the other about early voting. How will these changes affect the electoral system in Connecticut?

Well, the voter privacy one, first, is terribly important, and this came to light when the presidential commission was formed right after the 2016 election. And this commission was formed and immediately requested the voter files from every state in the country, to put it into one large federal voter file, with the express purpose of purging people from the list. We all, most of us, in National Association of Secretaries of State, which I was president at the time, we took great exception to that and refused to send the private information of millions of people where they would be potentially hacked. My concern about the release of personal identity information that would enable people to steal your identity really came to light with that whole process. So I propose that we do not reveal such information as exact birthdates, social security numbers and some of the more private information when we give out the voter file, which is a public document.

And what about early voting?

Early voting is something I’ve proposed for almost eight years now. Thirty-seven states vote on a day besides Tuesday, Election Day. We have not gone that direction in Connecticut because our state constitution limits us to just voting on Tuesday. So I am proposing a constitutional amendment, actually, to our state constitution that would allow us between three and five days of additional voting. My favorite is some sort of weekend voting plus the Tuesday, something like that. I think it just would enable lots more people to vote more easily.

Secretary Merrill, thank you for your time this morning, we appreciate it.

My pleasure.