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Local election offices fortify security for March primary

Doug McKnight/KAZU
Election workers watch a video on internet security at the Monterey County Elections office in Salinas.

With reports of possible Russian interference in this year’s vote, security is a major concern for election offices around the country. Here on the Central Coast, election officials have established new procedures for California’s March 3 Primary.

Monterey County Registrar of Voters Claudio Valenzuela said securing this year’s election process and the results are paramount. Election servers and voting systems are up-to-date with the latest security patches.

The office is part of the Information Sharing and Analysis Center, a national group that links local election offices with updates on security issues around the country. California is also part of the effort.

“The secretary of state, a few years ago, put together a cyber security team. They're very active in disseminating the correct information,” Valenzuela said.

For all employees, temporary and full-time, cybersecurity training is mandated.

“They don't touch a computer until they pass the cyber security awareness, training and tests,’ he said.

Voting machines at polling places have been replaced; the old machines had vulnerabilities.

“We used to have voting machines, those touch screen machines. They actually recorded votes,” Valenzuela explains.

Because of that, the machines did not produce a physical paper trail for audits or recounts. The new machines actually print out a paper ballot that voters can check.

“Paper ballots are the standard for security in elections,” said Valenzuela.

Mail-in-ballots in Monterey County look the same as in past elections. But in Santa Cruz County, the mail in ballots look different, and so do the paper ballots at polling places.

Gail Pellerin, the Santa Cruz County registrar of voters, says voters will no longer connect the head and tail of an arrow.

“You'll be filling in an oval to the left of your choice versus the right of your choice,” she said.

Pellerin says the format of the ballots is different because the voting system they were using was out-of-date. So, they replaced it with a new one.

She adds that voters can still use an electronic device at the polling place if they wish. Poll workers can provide voters with something that looks like a large iPad, where you mark your selections on a screen. But no data will be stored on the tablet.

“It actually prints a ballot that you can look at and verify your choices and then you deposit that in the ballot box. So, it's all paper based and not connected to the Internet,” Pellerin said.

Still, she says the biggest threat to our voting system is something that neither she nor any of the election offices can stop.

“I think the easiest way to hack a vote is really to hack somebody's mind by putting out false information and spreading it easily through social media. So, you know, I stay off social media this time of year and don't really read any of it,” Pellerin said.

California’s primary is coming up on March 3. It’s part of Super Tuesday, when more than a dozen states hold primaries. Mail-in-ballots have already been sent out and early voting is underway. KCBX and KAZU will have Central Coast coverage of the returns on election night.

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