America is just three months shy from what Secretary of the State of Connecticut Denise Merrill calls “a teachable moment.”

“Not only is 2020 the election year of the president —but it’s also the 100th anniversary of the right for women to vote,” said Merrill to about 50 people on Wednesday, Oct. 2.

Merrill was speaking at the League of Women Voters meeting at the Piedmont Club in Darien. The program, on maintaining election integrity in Connecticut, was free and open to the public.

“The passage of the 19th Amendment was the greatest expansion of democracy in the history of the country. Thirty million people suddenly got the right to vote,” she said. “It was an incredible political effort.”

Securing voting practices

The U.S. voter list, which is housed at the secretary of the state’s office and the state’s IT department, is probed about one million times a day, according to Merrill.

To ensure no other country is able to probe the voter list, a nationwide committee was established with the secretary of the states, the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and CIA, and other agencies.

Merrill said she instructs local administrators — the registrars and clerks, on how to make their own voting processes more secure.

“It’s our job now to make sure that outside forces, domestic or foreign, cannot penetrate our systems,” said Merrill, who lives in Mansfield. “And there have been many hacks.”

She added that “maintaining the faith of the public in our elections” is very important to her.

Ensuring accuracy

One of today’s greatest challenges, according to Merrill, is trying to reduce the “campaign of disinformation.”

This includes all the fake websites that have come up in regard to elections.

As an example, she said, readers would find a website that looks very similar to a political leader’s website, but it wouldn’t be, and instead it would direct them to the wrong polling place.

A lot of the false information is targeted at candidates, “just to make you generally distrustful of elections and the people running in them,” Merrill said.

“All these things conspire to make Americans very, very dubious right now about elections,” she added.

“Connecticut follows all the best practices,” said Merrill, when it comes to voting procedure.

There are 750 polling places in 169 towns and nothing is connected to the Internet that is voted on, so the state is “relatively safe” from that kind of a hack, she said.

In addition, there are paper ballots, which are auditable,

Also, the computer science department at the University of Connecticut tests the ballots.

Connecticut also trains local officials to ensure accuracy and safety when using the computers.

Some tips Merrill shared, for which she said all residents can benefit, include:

 Change passwords often.

 Don’t share passwords with others.

 Don’t open phishing emails.

 Get up-to-date computers

“Some of our towns are still running computers using Microsoft 7, which is pretty old and no longer supported,” she said. “We are instituting a virtual desktop, which will override their systems and everybody will feed into a Microsoft 10 system that we will be able to control.”

Bridgeport mayoral democratic primary

Merrill made reference to the recent mayoral Democratic primary results in Bridgeport, where state Sen. Marilyn Moore is asking the court for the election to be overturned due to allegations of absentee ballot fraud.

Incumbent Joe Ganim lost to Moore at the polls, 4,721 to 4,337, but won the absentee total 967 to 313. The final vote totals were 5,304 for Ganim and 5,034 for Moore.

“She would have to have some pretty strong evidence of something before the court would do that,” said Merrill, in regard to getting the court to overturn the election.

She added that anyone should get an absentee ballot who wants one. “An absentee ballot vote is just as good as any other vote,” she said, adding that controls are needed.

Merrill said she would want to see a lot of evidence of what the claims are stating in order to form an accurate opinion on this matter.

“So far, I see little actual evidence beyond what we saw in the paper, which is the testimony of various people,” Merrill said. “I would want to know a lot more about whether those were ballot applications that were mailed to them, or actual ballots.”

She added, however, that she is most concerned about “voter intimidation.”

“As far as people in the public housing areas, that to me is the most disturbing thing,” Merrill said. “I think that the kind of voter intimidation that appeared to be going on is extremely troubling. That is a crime.”

She said to resolve this issue, there would have to be sworn statements.

“The real problem,” Merrill said, “is how do you stop this permanently if these go beyond routine tactics of candidates and campaigns trying to win?”

Supporting young voters

The biggest problem in the United States, according to Merrill, is people aren’t voting enough.

“We’ve got a real problem with not just apathy but indignation out there against government and against even voting for government,” she said.

However, the “good news,” she said, is that of the 200,000 new voters in Connecticut over the past year or two, 92,000 of them are between 18 and 24.

“This whole generation — they’re coming to life and I couldn’t be happier,” Merrill said. “It’s about time.”

“They are interested. They are engaged. They are really starting to come out of the woodwork and want to be civically engaged,” she added. “It’s up to all of us to make sure it happens and to invite them in.”

She added that the public should be “making sure these young people get heard. It’s their world and they’re going to inherit it from us. I think we are obligated to make sure they understand how these things work and why they work the way they do.”

Overall, Merrill said the state of Connecticut has a very secure election system.

“There are many checks and balances and lots of people who care, and they want to do a good job,” she said. “That’s the bottom line for me.”

To learn more about the Connecticut Suffrage Centennial, visit Votesforwomenct.com.

sfox@darientimes.com