San Bernardino Registrar, County Part Ways After Cybersecurity Disputes

[Image via relicrecords]

San Bernardino, CA’s registrar of voters resigned suddenly last week under pressure from county leadership – and reports suggest that differences of opinion about election cybersecurity were the primary cause. The Sun has the details:

The head of the San Bernardino County elections office is out with about 110 days to go until the November election, but not before raising concerns about what he said was the county’s aging voter system, potential cybersecurity issues related to the office’s website and lack of staff.

Registrar of Voters Michael Scarpello confirmed he resigned Thursday, July 19. Asked if he was forced out, he said: “I think that’s an accurate portrayal.”

He said a clash in management style, specifically with the county’s Chief Operating Officer Leonard Hernandez, led to his departure.

“The county decided to go in a different direction is what they told me,” said Scarpello, who had been registrar since April 2011.

Principal Management Analyst Bob Page will oversee the elections office on an interim basis while the county conducts a national search for a new registrar.

“Mr. Scrapello’s departure had nothing to do with the integrity of election and registration activities during his tenure,” said county spokesman David Wert. “The county cannot provide further details about his departure because of the confidential nature of personnel matters.”

The elections office handles local and countywide elections in a county with more than 910,000 registered voters. Scarpello, who made $154,000 annually, came here from Denver, where he had been director of elections since 2007.

Scarpello himself confirmed that his departure was related to his concerns about the county’s voter registration system – and its relationship to the state system – as well as the county election results page:

Scarpello said the county’s voting system – used to tally and count ballots – is secure, although it’s very old and in need of replacement. Regarding the voting system, Wert said: “The county is working with the state and looking toward its internal financial resources to secure a new system in the near future.”

Scarpello is less confident about other aspects of the county’s elections infrastructure. He said he just learned the vendor who handles’ the county’s voter registration system might not want to do business anymore in California.

While the system contract runs through June 2020, Scarpello said he’s not sure whether the vendor would try to leave now or stay through the term of the contract. The California Secretary of State’s office did not respond to a request for comment about the vendor.

Wert said there are rumors the vendor might leave California, but nothing definite. “The county sees no need for alarm at this point,” he said.

Scarpello also expressed concern about the vulnerability of the elections office website and its election results page. “We could do everything right and if a Russian meddles with an election results page, it could make everyone look bad,” he said.

A key flashpoint in the conflict between the registrar and county leadership seems to have been federal scans of county systems for cybersecurity vulnerabilities and what they did (and didn’t) cover – including scans of the state’s system:

Wert said the county’s Information Services Department “was pushing forward” with scans of the registrar’s systems by the Department of Homeland Security and the California Military Department, which includes the national guard.

Scarpello objected because “he didn’t want (information services) meddling in his systems since they are not in the county’s network and are not connected to the Internet,” Wert said.

That’s not true, Scarpello said, adding it was he who got pushback when he sought to enhance security.

Wert said county IT officials had homeland security do “cyber hygiene scans of all Internet/public facing systems including those hosting (the registrar’s) websites These scans were performed regularly and continue to run.”

Scarpello said the cyber hygiene activities described by Wert are different from the security scans he wanted of the election website and results page.

The county’s voter registration database is part of a larger database maintained by the Secretary of State.

“Mr. Scarpello often expressed concerns about the vulnerability of the California Secretary of State’s system housing voter registration information for all counties,” Wert said. “And he very oddly often asked (the county Information Services Department) to scan the state’s system, which of course couldn’t be done because it’s the state’s system, not the county’s.”

Scarpello took issue with Wert’s description. “I was asking for advice from the computer experts on how to work with the Secretary of State to find out if these systems have been scanned,” he said.

The dispute also involved more familiar disagreements over the level of staffing offered to the registrar; Scarpello says more staff are needed, while county leadership thinks it’s a management issue:

Scarpello described the elections office as understaffed. “Every election is risky because when you have people working extremely long hours under stressful conditions, there’s always a chance for an error,” he said.

“My staff has been so diligent and so hard-working and so committed. They haven’t had any problems. We’ve had an almost perfect run since 2011. (But) every election when you’re that short-staffed, there’s always a risk.”

Wert said the county added permanent staff to the registrar of voters at Scarpello’s request.

“Sometimes the staff that were added were temporary because elections are cyclical, and perhaps Mr. Scarpello believes some of the temporary positions should have been permanent,” Wert said. “But the county believes it has consistently provided the appropriate amount of staffing. Sometimes it’s not about how many people you have, but how well you manage them.”

Scarpello said he was proud of his staff and his record since joining the county. “My hope is that the people of San Bernardino County pressure (county administrators) to do the right thing,” he said.

Obviously, the timing of this resignation isn’t ideal for the county with the general election less than four months away; here’s hoping that San Bernardino can stay on track with its election preparations. In the meantime, I’ll be watching to see if the outgoing registrar’s security concerns generate any new scrutiny of either the county or state election systems. Stay tuned …

1 Comment on "San Bernardino Registrar, County Part Ways After Cybersecurity Disputes"

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