Elections – Officials confident in security, but threats and controversy linger

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Part I of a two-part election story 

EL CENTRO – Election security simmered in recent years as Republicans in several states tried, and in some cases succeeded, in passing controversial laws requiring voters show identification at the polls. Supporters maintain voter ID laws prevent illegal voting.

Critics argue such maneuvers are a form of voter suppression keeping those who lack proper identification from voting—often minorities and the poor who tend to support Democrats.

The election-security issue was thrust to the forefront of American politics in the wake of President Donald J. Trump’s stunning November 2016 upset of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

While Trump won the electoral college, he lost the popular vote by several million and soon alleged fraudulent voting skewed those results in Clinton’s favor, in particular in California where Clinton won by more than 4 million votes. He appointed a special commission to investigate election fraud at the national level.

Meantime, allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election was confirmed by U.S. intelligence agencies and remains at full boil as more of the interference comes to light and a U.S. Department of Justice special counsel probes the Russian meddling and whether the Trump campaign was in any way involved in it.

U.S. intelligence officials and members of Congress warn the Russian threats are ongoing and could affect future elections.

Debra Porter, Registrar of Voters

As those national and international controversies play out, local election officials have a more urgent task at hand. Even by July the Imperial County Elections Department was already deep into preparations for this year’s Nov. 7 voting day, explained Registrar of Voters Debra Porter.

“To ever make an election happen, there is a lot of work that needs to be done,” she said. “For the November 2016 election Imperial County had 51 different ballot types, the largest ever for the county.”

This fall’s election is relatively small with seven ballots, highlighted by a contentious city council race and utility-tax proposal in Brawley. It also involves elections in Heber, Westmorland, Bombay Beach and the San Pasqual school district near Winterhaven, emblematic of the challenges of staging elections over the more than 4,000 square miles of Imperial County.

Porter holds a nonelected position and reports to the county chief executive officer.

In preparation, Porter’s staff of four balloons with extra help workers, starting with work on ballots and voter rolls months in advance and continuing through to a massive force of poll workers on election day and vote counters in the days and weeks after.

“Without extra help, there would be no election,” Porter quipped.

Still, no matter how frenzied the work gets, the integrity of the election process remains the priority, Porter maintained.

“Do you think when you go to buy milk, ‘How does it get there?’,” she said. “Elections are like that gallon of milk. All the processes have safeguards all the way through.”

Whether those safeguards are sufficient is the root of the broader controversies. Porter said she believes they are and explained the local and state security measures in detail conceding, however, that someone seeking to vote fraudulently could do so, at least temporarily.

At the state level, the office of California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, a Democrat, in an e-mail response to an interview request also expressed confidence in the security of elections in the state and criticized Trump’s election-fraud commission.

Conversely, a representative for the California Republican Party said in a telephone interview many in the party see weak areas that could be exploited either by those seeking to vote fraudulently or to “hack” into an election system and cause costly disruptions.

Porter said security advanced greatly in 2016 when California finally fully enacted the 2002 federal Help America Vote Act. A major provision was making the California Secretary of State’s office the holder of voter records for each of California’s 58 counties.

“Previously, each county held their own (voter records). Now we can check a voter on the state’s website,” Porter said.

Of the advantages of a centralized system, she added, “Say Imperial County students go to school in Riverside County. Some would register in Riverside. Previously, we wouldn’t have noticed. Now, right away we do. It (the second registration) is cancelled. They must re-register.

“Previously, they could have voted twice and eventually the Secretary of State would send us a notice ‘Is this a double voter?’ Now, we can prevent it at the registration.”

But Chuck Bell, a Sacramento-based attorney and former general counsel for the California Republican Party, known as CAGOP, maintained even this advancement is a symptom of the state’s lapses in election security.

“California’s own system (under the 2002 voting act) just came into compliance 13 or 14 years late, the data base to make sure the records are accurate,” Bell said.

“The party’s been supportive of HAVA (the federal act). Obviously, there was a lot of dead wood on the rolls and, frankly, that continues because California allows it to,” Bell added.

He explained “dead wood’ as inactive voters, many of whom have moved from a voting precinct or died, that have not been removed from voter rolls. That is a security concern, Bell said, because someone seeking to engage in fraudulent voting could vote under those names if they receive a mail ballot.

The state, he alleged, has no provisions to remove those voters if they do not respond to a mail inquiry from a county election department as to whether the person still lives at an address.

“The risk is if those people are sent ballots. The question is could they vote without having to affirm (their identity) in a tangible way?” Bell said.

Porter said her office takes exhaustive steps to ensure voter rolls are up to date, even going so far as to read locally published obituaries and double checking to ensure the deceased are removed.

Part II next week