Opinion: California can’t rest on its laurels when it comes to election security
By Pedro Nava, Bill Emmerson and Janna Sidley
In 2018, then-Secretary of State Alex Padilla called California’s aging voting equipment “one of the gravest threats to the integrity of our elections.” The response from governors Jerry Brown and Gavin Newsom and the Legislature was unprecedented. Over the next two years, California allocated well over $200 million to upgrade voting equipment in the state, and last year the state spent an additional $120 million to help Californians vote safely in the pandemic.
The result? The November 2020 election was the most secure in history, according to the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.
Now we must build on that momentum. The Little Hoover Commission, California’s independent government watchdog, is recommending the state increase its investments in securing election infrastructure. Those recommendations are contained in the commission’s new report, California Election Infrastructure: Making a Good System Better.
It may seem counterintuitive to increase investment when things are working well. However, the state has a valuable opportunity to get ahead of threats and turn the all-too-common paradigm of reacting to crises on its head by proactively preparing for them.
The commission recommends four ways to build best-in-class security into election infrastructure.
First, the state should develop and adopt open-source intellectual property for election technology. In this system, experts, “white hat” hackers, and interested members of the public could review source code and alert the California Secretary of State’s office about potential security flaws and other concerns.
Only authorized personnel would be allowed to physically modify the code. This code then could be used by counties that wish to build their own voting systems from the ground up, or bundled into a variety of hardware, software, and service packages by voting equipment manufacturers for counties that prefer an off-the-shelf solution.
Second, the state should swap its current election audit for risk-limiting audits. California was ahead of its time when it first implemented election audits in the 1960s, but auditing methodologies have since been developed that could better prove election outcomes with — in routine scenarios — less work. The exception would be in close races or if the audit caught errors: In those situations, a lengthier audit would be required. The commission views this as a feature, not a flaw.
The state must pay for mandates on local governments, and risk-limiting audits could increase costs. But proving an election’s reported outcome is accurate — or catching and fixing errors if it is not — is worthy of the investment.
Third, the state should create a training program for everyone who interacts with election infrastructure. Most county election chiefs are elected, usually as the county registrar or clerk, and perform a wide range of duties. Consequently, election heads may not enter office with much experience in securing election infrastructure. The state should provide one-on-one training to each election chief to bring them all up to the same high standard.
We also need to do a better job of recruiting and training election workers. Counties already have difficulty finding enough election workers, so we need creative solutions like bonus pay for election workers in historically hard-to-fill areas, expanded opportunities for high school and college students to work at the polls, and allowing the state government’s 230,000-member workforce to participate in advanced training opportunities ahead of serving as election workers.
Finally, human beings inevitably will make mistakes, even if they have the best of intentions. So we need compliance audits. California already has laws and regulations about how election workers interact with election equipment. A compliance would provide an additional layer of security by checking to make sure those procedures are being followed.
In this age of misinformation, election legitimacy depends not just on running a secure election, but transparently proving that the reported outcome is correct. California already does a great job of running elections, but adopting our recommendations will only make a good system better.
• Pedro Nava, Bill Emmerson and Janna Sidley serve on the Little Hoover Commission. Nava, who chairs the Commission, represented the Santa Barbara area in the California Assembly from 2004-2010. This column was originally published by TechWire, a website that covers public-sector information technology in California.