By KATHLEEN RONAYNE, Associated Press
(AP) — California's top elections official said Wednesday the state's election system is secure but acknowledged public skepticism that he blamed on Russian attempts to interfere in 2016 and confusing media reports about those efforts.
"Just the sheer fact that we're having this hearing is a fact that the Russians are succeeding in part," Secretary of State Alex Padilla told a legislative committee on election security. Later, he added, "public perception is just as important as the reality of what did or did not happen in 2016."
Padilla again told lawmakers there's no evidence that Russians or others breached California election systems or voter databases in the last election. But, he said, the state has stepped up security efforts to fight against fresh attempts, including new security audits, beefing up protection against malware and hosting cybersecurity training for county officials who administer elections in the state.
"This is the new normal," he said. "We do have strong security measures in place, but we must constantly improve and strengthen our resources."
He urged lawmakers to support Gov. Jerry Brown's budget request to spend $134 million to update county voting systems, many of which haven't been updated since the early 2000s.
California was one of 21 states that Russian agents targeted in 2016, but it only scanned the state's Department of Technology network and was not successful at breaking in, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Padilla said such scanning by outside actors, Russian or otherwise, happens on a regular basis and the state is well set up to fight against it.
Some lawmakers lamented that even though the attempts weren't successful, Russian agents have effectively altered the U.S. conversation around election security.
"I'm frustrated (the Russians) have set the frame, and I think we can take it back here today through evidence of our diligence in house," said Democratic Sen. Henry Stern of Agoura Hills, chair of the Senate elections committee.
Fears of interference in U.S. elections rose anew in February when federal intelligence officials said Russian agents appear to be gearing up for 2018, both by targeting voter registration systems and fomenting distrust on social media. Experts say the federal and state governments haven't done enough to prepare.
Padilla said California's relationship with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is improving. He criticized the agency for being slow to tell California and other states about previous Russian scanning attempts. "The relationship with federal agencies in particular has improved over the course of the last year," he said.
In a separate questionnaire from The Associated Press, Padilla's office wouldn't say if California has asked Homeland Security for an onsite risk and vulnerability assessment. As of mid-February, 14 states had asked for one.
A trio of local elections officials also urged lawmakers to approve Brown's spending request to update outdated equipment.
Gail Pellerin, county clerk and registrar of voters in Santa Cruz County, shared concerns that Russia has effectively altered the public perception about voting safety. Even though the county systems need upgrades, they are still highly secure, she said.
"Our firewalls have prevailed," she said. "I think their goal though is to bring doubt into people's minds about the integrity and the accuracy of our vote in the hopes that we stay home and don't vote."