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Santa Clara County, Elections, Elections and voting, Education, Video

Election security on the front lines

 Counties put heads together ahead of 2020

Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian recently convened up to 150 people from around the state to talk about the many 21st-century election security challenges California’s 58 counties confront with less than a year before the state’s 2020 presidential election primary.

Reports of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election sparked deep worry about the integrity of the system. 

Most people at Simitian’s Feb. 6, 2019, conference at the Googleplex in Mountain View seemed to be county registrars or their employees, with civic groups such as the League of Women Voters mixed in. People came from at least as far as Kings County.

“In California, counties really are the front line in terms of the election process,” Simitian said. “You hear the conversation at the state and national level, and that’s an important conversation about foreign actors, particularly Russian hacking. But the place where the votes get tabulated, counted and announced is right here at your own local county level.”

New election security challenges

Indeed, while special prosecutor Robert Mueller completed his report to the U.S. attorney general into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and Congress is debating what to do with it, local officials must focus on how to run a secure, accurate election in 2020.

Even in the best of times, running elections is a daunting task.

On the front end, they must maintain the voter registration files, train and recruit poll workers, arrange polling places, ensure the right ballot goes out to every voter, get voting machines tested and approved. After polls close, they must keep ballots secure, then count and announce the votes accurately in a reasonable amount of time and, finally certify the results.

Those are just some of the basics that county election officers have always done. But in the 21st century, they face new election security challenges. These include the potential hacking of voter registration files, voting machines and even the official registrar of voters websites and social media accounts.

“These are all technical challenges that 25, 30 years ago weren’t part of the challenge,” Simitian said. “There’ve always been people who wanted to disrupt elections. This is not a new phenomenon. But the ability to do it from the other side of the globe and to do it in a fashion that is so widespread and literally instantaneous presents a new set of challenges, and we’ve got to be on top of it.”

Simitian cautioned that the goal of foreign interference in elections is insidious. These bad state actors, he said, want “to disrupt the system in a way that undermines confidence and public trust. You don’t have to change a single vote to do that.”

Fighting misinformation

The keynote speaker was California’s top election officer, Secretary of State Alex Padilla. He talked about California’s new misinformation-fighting Vote Sure website. Also included were moderated panel discussions featuring seasoned experts such as former Federal Election Commission member Ann Ravel, California Voter Foundation President Kim Alexander and former San Mateo County Registrar Warren Slocum.

Simitian emerged from the conference saying he was pleased with what he learned. But he remains cautious in the knowledge that the threats are always evolving. He was glad the conference allowed officials and others to share ideas about how to counter the threats.

“I was just tremendously encouraged that there we so many people who wanted to give up the greater part of the day to focus on election security,” Simitian said in an interview after the event.

“That suggests to me that people are taking the threat very seriously. They’re not overly excited, they’re not overly anxious. But they understand there’s work to be done here if we’re going to get it right. And now we can go do that work more fully informed.”

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April 4, 2019

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