Did Russia Target Riverside Voters?

Was Riverside County a trial balloon for Russian operatives hoping to undermine voters’ faith in the U.S. election system? That’s the shocking claim contained in this Time Magazine article published last week, which details Russian efforts to hack into U.S. election systems -- a plot that seems to grow more widespread and sinister by the day -- as well as Obama Administration officials’ plans to respond to a breach.

Time is seizing on a story about changed voter registrations in Riverside County which we have covered extensively before. As the writers note, Riverside County District Attorney Michael Hestrin has been at the forefront of this story since he first began receiving reports of voters’ altered registrations back in July of 2016.

It was only months later that it dawned on investigators in D.C. that undermining voters' faith may have been the point of the Riverside County hack all along. In the months following the California primaries, the feds discovered that Russian hackers had broken into more than 20 state and local election systems and attempted to alter voter registration in several of them. Looking back at the events in Riverside County, cybersecurity officials at the White House wondered whether it had been a test run by the Russians. "It looked like a cyberattacker testing what kind of chaos they could unleash on Election Day," says one former federal cybersecurity official who looked into the case. "There was no forensic evidence, so we may never know for sure, but the intelligence told us the Russians were bragging about doing just that."

Hestrin has been sounding the alarm about the 2016 incident, which he firmly believes was a hack. But he’s not willing to go as far as the Time article in pointing the finger at the Russians.

“As a prosecutor, I’ve got to go with the facts … there is no forensic evidence as to who did this,” he told the Press Enterprise in an interview this week. “My sense is that this was deliberate … But I couldn’t tell you if it was the Russians or kids pulling a prank in a basement.”

County elections officials are also being extremely cautious -- if not downright skeptical. They're pushing back against the Time piece, which they say contains some significant errors. 

“Riverside County has not been notified by any law enforcement agency or by the Secretary of State’s office that voter registration in Riverside County has been compromised in any way,” said Registrar of Voters Rebecca Spencer in an email response to the Time piece.

She went even further.

“As occasionally occurs, some Riverside County voters reported in 2016 that they believed their registrations had been changed without their knowledge or consent. In the vast majority of cases, reviews by the registrar of voters office indicated that the voters had in fact requested the changes. The reviews included an examination of the voters’ signatures.

“In some instances, voters forgot they requested the change and, occasionally, had cast ballots for years under the registration change they were challenging,” Spencer said. “In only two cases out of approximately 100, the registrar could not resolve questions about a registration change that was being challenged. The registrar forwarded information about those cases to the California secretary of state and the Riverside County district attorney for further review.”


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