California election officials are guarding their voting machines and registration lists against Russian hackers — although no one has spotted any. “I operate under the assumption that hacking is actually happening and California is a target,” Secretary of State Alex Padilla says. “This year, there’s a big focus on several congressional races that could determine the House majority. The stakes in California have national implications.” But would the Russians actually try to change election outcomes? “I have no doubt that if they could, they would,” says Padilla, a Democrat who’s heavily favored to win reelection in November. Hacking into California’s voting system and altering votes, however, is considered by most experts to be practically impossible. That’s because voting machines aren’t hooked up to the internet. State law forbids it. A hacker might attack one machine but couldn’t reach into the entire vote-collecting system.
“We invited the Department of Homeland Security to try to hack into our system,” says Joe Holland, Santa Barbara County’s recorder-assessor and president of the state association of election officials. “They stayed five days and couldn’t do it.”
Voter registration lists are different, however.
“People are registered online. Records are connected to the internet. And hackers could break into those,” says Matt Bishop, a UC Davis computer science professor. “They could create chaos by disenfranchising voters.”