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In California, scant threat of election hacking

A voter casts his ballot in Ventura County during the 2016 primary election. (Photo: Joseph Sohm, Shutterstock)

Election count hacking has become a front and center fear during this presidential election cycle in at least two states, but it’s almost certain that Californians can rest easy.

At least, that’s the word in California.

“Our system is not 100 percent unhackable, (but) we have done a lot more than other states” to prevent tampering.” — Kim Alexander

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump suggested that if he loses in Pennsylvania, it would be the result of voter fraud.  Trump offered no evidence to back his statement. The FBI has warned state election officials of possible attempts to hack state election systems after breaches in Arizona and Illinois. The likely culprits were agents of the Russian government, the FBI said. Federal investigators also said Russians likely were behind the recent email hacking of members of Congress.

Could some nefarious organization or individual disrupt the integrity of California’s voting system and its Nov. 8 general election?

It’s possible, but extremely improbable, say the experts.

“There are tons of ways you could do it,” says Kim Alexander, founder and president of the California Voter Foundation. “Our system is not 100 percent unhackable.”

Nonetheless, Alexander adds, “We have done a lot more than other states” to prevent tampering.

Discussions of potential hacking actually may make the system more secure.

“When you have an equipment failure that led to a plane crash, people are all going to check their planes and make sure their equipment is safe,” said Richard Lowden, the founder and CEO of RTBiQ, a Bay Area high-tech data communications and advertising firm. “The same thing will occur here. They are going to be looking at the system to make sure they have the proper things in place.”

Alexander noted that California’s 58 counties independently handle election night counts — along with checks, counterchecks and paper trails – and anyone trying to foul things up would face considerable challenges.

“Voting in California is widely dispersed, with 58 counties, and there is little interference from the secretary of state’s office,” she said.

At the office of the secretary of state, California’s chief elections officer, the chances of malevolent interference in the state’s electoral process are viewed as “incredibly small,” said Sam Mahood, spokesman for the Secretary of State’s Office.

“Maintaining voter confidence in the validity and security of our elections is essential to improving voter turnout.” — Mindy Romero

“First, every county has its own system — it’s very decentralized,” Mahood said.

“Second, the county systems cannot be connected to the internet at any time,” he continued.  “And third, there is a paper trail that can be audited.” Vendors who want to sell election-count machinery to counties must undergo a long, extensive certification process, Mahood said.

“We even have people who will actually try to break into it,” he added.

Under California law, elections officials in each county process and count ballots, and transmit results to the Secretary of State’s office. The Secretary of State’s office compiles the results in the official statement of vote, but has no direct role in each county’s tallying, auditing, and certification work.

On Sept. 9, Secretary of State Alex Padilla said his agency had received more than 100 complaints from voters who had received letters from a group called the Voter Participation Center claiming, falsely, that the voter is not registered to vote.

Mindy Romero, director of the California Civic Engagement Project at the UC Davis Center for Regional Change, agreed with Alexander and Mahood.

“It’s very, very unlikely that our elections could be hacked,” she said, even though there has been perennial concern over possibility for years as hackers have become more sophisticated.

Romero worries that unfounded fears over ballot security might lessen voter participation.  In the latest edition of the Project’s newsletter, Romero declares:

“Maintaining voter confidence in the validity and security of our elections is essential to improving voter turnout.  While the actual risk of hackers manipulating election results may be slight, the public perception of a real threat could unfortunately dampen some voter enthusiasm and turnout in the upcoming election.”

And Trump isn’t helping, she added.

“Compounding this concern over voter confidence in our electoral system are recent assertions by Trump that there is a need for his supporters to monitor polling places this November for voter fraud, despite comprehensive research showing that voter fraud is exceedingly rare in our country, with only 31 potential cases found out of over one billion votes cast over a 15-year period.”

But there is occasional trouble.

On Sept. 9, Secretary of State Alex Padilla said his agency had received more than 100 complaints from voters who had received letters from a group called the Voter Participation Center claiming, falsely, that the voter is not registered to vote.  The organization offered a pre-filled-out voter registration form with incorrect or outdated information. Usually, the voter was properly registered to vote, Padilla said.

Mahood pointed out that California had the highest voter registration in history leading up to the June primary and the trend today is still indicating heavy registration.  If there is any lack of faith in the state’s electoral integrity, it is so far not deterring voters.

The state’s most recent figures on voter registration can be seen here. Of California’s 24.8 million voters, about 18 million are registered, or about 73 percent

The next report, the 60-day report on registration with figures through Sept. 9, will be published in October.

 


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