Humboldt County is looking into getting new voting machines ahead of the 2020 March primary election. The current system has been in use since 2009, and some machines that are geared toward helping voters with disabilities have been in use since 2006. Kelly Sanders, Humboldt County’s clerk/recorder/registrar of voters, told the Outpost today that she is hoping the new machines will be in Humboldt before the year’s end.
“We are drafting the proposals right now and we are hoping to have that finished in the next couple weeks,” Sanders said. “Once we have a vendor in place we will work out a timeline to receive the equipment.”
On Feb. 27, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla announced that counties statewide must update their voting machines in order to “strengthen the security of California’s election infrastructure.” There are currently three companies in California that are approved by the California Secretary of State’s office to sell voting systems in the state. The approved systems are Dominion Voting Inc.’s Democracy Suite 5.2 Voting System, the County of Los Angeles’ Voting Solutions for all People Tally 1.0, and the HART InterCivic Verity Voting 3.0.1.
The state is chipping in $134.3 million dollars to help pay for the costs. In order to receive the full amount of funding, counties must “provide a dollar-for-dollar match.” Sanders said Humboldt County was allocated $542,000 and currently has $356,000 to match — bringing the total amount possible to be spent on a new voting system to $712,000. Sanders said the current machines were already reaching the end of their life and that manufacturers stopped making certain parts for them, making repairs difficult.
On June 5, 2017, The Intercept published a memo from the National Security Agency stating Russian military intelligence used a spear-phishing campaign to hack into VR Systems, a Florida-based voting systems vendor. (Phishing is the most basic form of “hacking” where an email is sent from an outside source asking employees to update their passwords so the “hackers” can obtain usernames and passwords from naive employees.) VR Systems provided Hart InterCivic, the maker of Humboldt’s current voting system, with electronic poll books. So, Humboldt voters were hacked and the county is replacing the systems? Not exactly.
In an interview with the Bay Area News Group, Sanders said there is no evidence Humboldt County received any of the emails in question. In the interview with the Outpost Sanders reiterated that voting security is the utmost of importance for Humboldt voters.
“There’s a number of things we do to ensure machines aren’t tampered with and one of the things is that the machines are not connected to the internet,” Sanders said. “The machines are all freestanding and are very hard to tamper with them. We have very strict chain of custody standards as well. Before they leave the elections office they have tamper-proof seals on them and are verified before they are opened to accept ballots.”
Wes Rishel is the technical lead for the Elections Transparency Project— a project that started in Humboldt in June 2008 and utilizes the right to view all ballots cast in a race to perform a citizen recount after every election in the county. Rishel has been a part of ETP since 2016, when he was looking for a project to get involved in after he retired. Rishel acknowledged that everything ETP does is unofficial and no laws require outside oversight, but added oversight helps with voter confidence.
“The fact that we have the ability to go out and look at particular races and look at the number of people that voted helps with people’s assuredness,” Rishel said. “Even in the best of times people are always going to be suspicious of an election if it didn’t go the way they thought it would, and these aren’t the best of times.”
ETP’s role in oversight quickly grew to prominence in November 2008, when it found errors in the number of ballots cast during that year’s election cycle. ETP, known then as the Humboldt County Transparency Project, found 197 mail-in votes had been dropped from the final ballot count. The problem was due to a programming error, and a new system of voting machines were purchased in the following year. Rishel said there are a number of things counties can do to ensure voter confidence, but the first step involves transparency.
“Step one is to always have available to independent third parties true copies of the ballots,” Rishel said. “That step goes a long way towards calming the waters.”