The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday will hear a proposal to have regular cybersecurity updates about the local voting system as part of an ongoing effort to prepare for the 2020 elections.
“It’s very clear that the Russians are coming,” Supervisor Joe Simitian quipped about his plan, which comes up for consideration at Tuesday’s board meeting. “The security of the 2020 election will largely rest on the security of local systems and their level of preparedness to address any potential attacks.”
Simitian’s latest proposal comes about six months after his office convened a conference on election security in the 21st century, which featured Secretary of State Alex Padilla as keynote speaker and six months ahead of the March 2020 primary.
The county supervisor said one of his biggest takeaways from the event this past spring was that public officials need more than just good policies and the latest, greatest technology to protect our elections—they need to maintain the public’s trust.
“American democracy is built upon the idea that our elections fairly and accurately reflect the will of our voters,” Simitian said in a memo about his proposal. “It is our job to communicate with the public and help them to understand what we are doing to make that idea a reality.”
In that spirit, he said, he’s urging his colleagues to order regular updates about election security efforts, starting at the Oct. 22 meeting of the Board of Supervisors. He said the updates should be prepared by various county departments, including, of course, that of Registrar of Voters (ROV) Shannon Bushey.
“These reports involve sensitive subjects, and we should certainly not compromise our security efforts through excessive disclosure,” Simitian wrote. “However, there is quite a lot of information that could be of use to the public that is not confidential.”
And once the county drafts a document detailing its best practices, the supervisor said, he would like to present that as a model for other jurisdictions.
The county’s efforts come as Secretary of State Padilla prepares to scrutinize the cybersecurity of its new voting technology, which will be deliberately disconnected from the internet to avoid risks of remote hacking. State officials will test the system’s vulnerability by staging “break-ins” to pinpoint anything that needs fixing.
After all, Simitian said, foreign interference in national elections in 2016 is a cautionary tale for local governments as they prepare for 2020.
“Foreign governments attacked out elections in 2016,” he wrote in his memo. “According to assessments by the United States intelligence community (including the CIA, FBI and others), malicious actors sponsored by the Russian government obtained access to the systems of multiple state and local election boards. They breached the election systems in Arizona and stole the information of 76,000 voters in Illinois, and it is likely that they engaged in other behavior that we will never know about.”
Experts say there’s little doubt that foreign interests will try again in the coming year.
“Anyone who thinks that Vladimir Putin will just look around and leave when he enters our voter registration databases the next time—you better think again,” Stanford University political science Professor Larry Diamond said at a forum in Sunnyvale last week. “As political scientists, we have taken free and fair elections for granted.”
But the federal government has failed to act with the urgency the matter deserves, Diamond continued. Even though many leaders within President Donald Trump’s own party agree there’s a problem.
“Behind closed doors, even Republicans will tell you that the evidence is incontrovertible—a foreign country has tried to hack our elections,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Fremont) said at the same panel event where Diamond addressed the issue.
Nationally, Khanna and Rep. John Ratcliffe, a Republican colleague from Texas, are spearheading legislation that would fortify the US government’s cybersecurity strongholds. The bipartisan Advancing Cybersecurity Diagnostics and Mitigation Act would boost the defenses of election systems on the federal, state and local level.
That’s welcome news for Simitian, who said counties are the first line of defense.
“We buy the voting machines, implement security measures, count the votes, and ensure those counts are accurate,” he said in his memo. “Here in Santa Clara County, employees across many departments are hard at work on these problems every day.”
By way of example, he said, the county ROV has been making sure that its new voting machines comply with state safety, security and integrity benchmarks.
Meanwhile, the county’s security team actively ensures that the system is safe from hackers and its attorneys make sure that the confidential information citizens share as part of the process is kept as safe as possible.
“If done right,” Simitian went on to write, “election day goes off smoothly and the public goes about its business, never giving this difficult task a second thought.”
The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors meets at 9:30am Tuesday at 70 W. Hedding St. in San Jose. Click here to read the agenda.