Capitol Alert

Trump administration is no help on Russian election meddling, California officials say

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla speaks during the California Democratic Convention at the Sacramento Convention Center in Sacramento on Saturday, May 20, 2017. Padilla said the state will not wait help from the federal government to protect its election systems.
California Secretary of State Alex Padilla speaks during the California Democratic Convention at the Sacramento Convention Center in Sacramento on Saturday, May 20, 2017. Padilla said the state will not wait help from the federal government to protect its election systems. rbenton@sacbee.com

As the 2018 elections approach, California officials are taking steps to combat foreign interference, with or without the help of the federal government.

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla has been critical in recent months of the federal government's lackluster response to Russian efforts to influence U.S. elections, and Padilla renewed his criticism this week after a new report said the U.S. State Department has failed to spend money to combat foreign interference in our elections.

The department has spent none of the $120 million allocated since late 2016 for combating foreign attempts to interfere in U.S. elections and sow distrust through social media, The New York Times reported Sunday. Padilla said the delay is another example of the passive approach President Donald Trump has taken in fighting suspected Russian efforts to attack state election systems.

"Time and time again President Trump has refused to take the threat of Russian activity seriously," Padilla said in a statement. "Now, inaction by the U.S. State Department is squandering bipartisan funding to combat Russian misinformation campaigns and attempts to meddle in our democracy."

To asses the threat to California's elections systems, the Assembly and Senate elections committees will hold a joint informational hearing on cybersecurity at 9 a.m. in Room 444 of the Capitol. The hearing will discuss steps California officials have taken and can take to shield state voting systems from foreign attacks.

The state will not wait for the federal government to help, Padilla said.

"The U.S. State Department is either sitting on their own hands or being forced to sit on their hands by this Administration," Padilla said in the statement. "State and local officials will remain vigilant as the 2018 elections gear up, but the Russian threat requires the mobilization and leadership of the entire federal government. President Trump and his administration will own the failures of their inaction."

One key concern in California is the reliability of county voting systems. A report last year by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office found that "all but a few counties in the state use voting systems that are more than a decade old."

Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed 2018-19 state budget includes $134.3 million for replacing aging county voting systems. The cost of updating systems is expected to be split equally between counties and the state.

Assemblyman Marc Berman, D-Palo Alto, who chairs the Assembly Elections and Redistricting Committee, said updating county election systems is a top priority and requires the help of private companies that can develop the updated technology. Berman said the state cannot rely on the federal government for help.

"This is just not a priority for the Trump administration," Berman said. "We'll do everything we need to do to make sure our election systems are safe and secure."

California was one of 21 states notified by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security last September of Russian efforts to hack their online election systems in 2016. NBC News also reported last week that U.S. intelligence agents had evidence that voter registration systems or websites in California and six other states were breached by Russian-backed operatives before the 2016 election, but the intelligence officials never informed the states.

Padilla, however, has stated that Homeland Security officials have no evidence or information that California's voter information or registration systems were compromised or breached. The agency has also disputed the NBC News report.

This morning's hearing will feature testimony from Padilla; Matthew Masterson, a commissioner with the U.S. Election Assistance Commission; several county election officials; and cybersecurity experts, including Andrew Grotto, a Stanford University fellow and former senior director for cybersecurity policy at the White House under both the Obama and Trump administrations.

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