Bizarre voting machine story no threat to recall vote, officials say

‘This is part of the effect and perpetuation of the Big Lie’

By Jeff Elder

Examiner staff writer

Stolen voting machine software, the My Pillow founder, a missing elections official, an FBI investigation, concerned cybersecurity experts and the California Secretary of State. Put them all together and what do you get?

A bizarre story that unfolded this summer involving far-right political activists and Dominion voting machines – such as those used by San Francisco.

It’s a tale that has a little bit of everything. But the twists and turns do not include a real threat to the security of the Gavin Newsom recall vote, experts say. Despite the bizarre episode, city and state voting is secure, they insist.

It all started in May, when a county clerk in Colorado named Tina Peters assisted in the theft of voting machine software and other information, Colorado state officials say. The voting machine software and other Dominion voting machine details were posted online and shared elsewhere by hackers and far-right conspiracy theorists. State and federal law enforcement launched investigations, but Peters disappeared. My Pillow founder and staunch Trump ally Mike Lindell said he was hiding the missing Peters. Newsom challenger Larry Elder, meanwhile, has promoted election fraud claims, including Dominion theories.

LinkedIn, Twitter and other social media platforms were peppered by Dominion fraud theories in the days leading up to the election. And experts say the far-right tactic of piecing together conspiracy theories about election fraud is not going away.

The theft and posting of sensitive Dominion voting machine details this summer “is very serious,” John Arntz, director of the San Francisco Department of Elections told The Examiner. “The threat to our election is not.”

San Francisco renewed its deal with Dominion – a widely used vendor but favorite target of conspiracy theorists – in 2019 in a contract that could ultimately bring the company $12 million. Supporters of former President Donald Trump bashed the company during the 2020 campaign, leading to multiple lawsuits against Trump aide and former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and others. Dominion noted federal authorities see no heightened risk due to the Colorado incident, and referred California users to the Secretary of State’s Office.

The Newsom vote is the first nationally prominent election since the latest far-right entanglement with Dominion. And experts say that while the recall election is secure, what has transpired this summer is deeply concerning.

And here’s where things get really interesting: Eight cybersecurity experts say there is now a legitimate risk to election security – because of the software and other Dominion details leaked by the conspiracy theorists. The conspiracy theorists made their own Dominion claims credible by stealing and circulating sensitive security details about the machines, they believe.

The experts – two of which are from the Bay Area – wrote the California Secretary of State earlier this month, saying that leaking of the software “materially elevates threats to the trustworthiness of the ongoing California recall election and to public trust in the election.”

“Release of the code is sufficient to demand emergency action,” David Jefferson, a signer of the letter and retired computer scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory told The Examiner. “We don’t know of any threat to this election, however.”

“The release of the code was apparently politically motivated, and it is not a minor thing,” statistics professor and election security expert Philip Stark, of UC Berkeley, told The Examiner. “They pointed out a security issue – and they are part of it.”

California Secretary of State Shirley Weber reviewed the experts’ findings and responded in a letter that the Colorado breach was very serious, but the state election was secure. And she declined to audit the election, as the experts requested. Colorado officials say they have replaced their old Dominion voting machines with new ones from the company. “This is a situation of an insider threat,” Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold told CNN. “The Mesa County Clerk knowingly allowed a breach of security, and by all evidence, assisted it.” 

“This is part of the effect and perpetuation of the Big Lie,” she added.

But that will not impact the state’s Newsom vote, experts are certain. Arntz says that The City installs new voting machine software with each election, and publishes redacted images of ballots, and software transcript logs online after the election. “Even if someone could somehow get into our system – and we are confident that they can’t – voters can see the votes and records for themselves” at the Department of Elections website.

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