Elections

Voting in SLO County could have been easier, but hacking fear delayed change

jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Citing concerns about election cyber security, San Luis Obispo County Clerk-Recorder Tommy Gong has decided to keep neighborhood polling places with an option to vote by mail in 2018, opting out of a state test of an all-vote-by-mail system.

Gong said the new model that also would have included a handful of voting centers to be open for multiple days — and expected to increase voter participation and save money — may be implemented for the presidential primaries in March 2020.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed the bill to modernize California elections a year ago.

Fourteen counties, including San Luis Obispo, were offered a chance to participate in 2018. So far, Sacramento, Nevada, Napa and San Mateo counties decided to make the switch, according to the State Secretary of State Office.

Gong said that shift is not without challenges — the biggest is a lack of secure technology that would allow staff at voting centers to access local and state voter databases to ensure voters haven’t already voted or weren’t registered in another county.

San Luis Obispo County Information Technology Director Daniel Milei discusses coordination with the FBI to protect against "abnormal" cyber activity. Leading up to the Nov. 8 General Election, county officials met quietly with FBI representatives

That technology isn’t needed with the current system, where polling places have printed lists of registered voters in the geographic areas.

“It’s all very new, and we’re finding out more things from the Department of Homeland Security, and there would be concern for (hacking) and how we would operate to maintain security,” Gong said in a telephone interview.

Cyber threats have become a real concern for election officials.

San Luis Obispo County saw a spike in cyber threats from foreign entities during the Nov. 8 General Election in 2016. The Department of Homeland Security just last week notified 21 states, including California, that their voting systems had been targeted by Russian government hackers last year.

In announcing his decision, Gong listed several challenges, including difficulty in finding enough staff and finding locations for multiple-day voting centers. The potential for voter confusion was also a concern, given that Santa Barbara County was not given the option to implement the change but shares a media market with San Luis Obispo County.

The county is also seeking to upgrade its 18-year-old computerized vote-counting system. Staff last year resorted to hand-feeling 139,684 ballots, Gong said, adding the new system will likely be compatible with the new election model.

Monica Vaughan: 805-781-7930, @MonicaLVaughan

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