Election security hot topic at Congressional town hall in Walnut Creek

A Congressional town hall in Walnut Creek drew a large crowd Monday night. The hot topic: election security. 

"A bot is a program that imitates a human being, " said information technologist Mark Kumleben, of the Claremont Graduate University. "And it's the wild west out there."

Kumleben was one of three experts, brought in by Rep. Mark deSaulnier, Democrat from the 11th Congressional District, representing Contra Costa County. 

The panel, in front of a 300-person audience, explained how internet scams and hackers are shaking the foundation of free elections.  

"Our voting systems are critical national infrastructure, " said David Jefferson, a computer scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab. "They have to be treated as infrastructure, and they desperately need attention and upgrading."

DeSaulnier has held more than 70 town halls on various topics.

But this one had people standing against the walls and plopping on the floor once the chairs were filled.
Manual ballot counts and audits are no longer considered dry, abstract topics, not after the interference of 2016. 

"So how do you look at as few ballots as possible when the outcome is right?" posed Philip Stark, U.C. Berkeley dean and statistics professor. "And how do you maximize your chances of looking at all of them, if the outcome is wrong?"  

California's new state budget provides $134 million for counties to modernize their voting systems. 

More than a dozen already have, and the state funds will match every dollar they spend. 

"Were any of our systems compromised, breached?" theorized Secretary of State Alex Padilla, " the answer is no."

Padilla told the crowd, there was no compromise of California election systems in 2016, but disinformation campaigns are different.  "Campaigns to create chaos, to confuse, to create doubt and undermine confidence in our elections? That answer is absolutely yes." 

And since hackers continuously scan for weaknesses, Padilla isn't wavering from paper.  

"Paper ballots, paper ballots, paper ballots," he told KTVU, "because while we may not be a battleground state in a Presidential election, we are  always a high value target."  

The audience had questions and expressed frustration, that despite continued Russian meddling, new federal spending to safeguard the vote nationwide has been blocked by Republicans, tied up in the politics around the Trump -Putin relationship. 

"In a functioning Congress, it would be very bipartisan making sure we find out the truth," Rep. DeSaulnier told KTVU, "and neither party would take advantage of that, this is more important than party, it's the fate of American democracy."  

But the crowd was also urged to take responsibility, and safeguard themselves from manipulation, by being skeptical of what's on social media:   

"It's not just the Russians, not just the Trump campaign using these bot networks," said researcher Kumleban, " and we all need to take a step back and ask 'Am I talking to a real person or not ?'"

Congress is on break through August, but on its return, the Senate Intelligence Committee has called executives from Facebook, twitter and Google to testify on their plans to fight election interference.