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Student Candidate Breaks into Over 550 Emails, Votes for Self

On Monday, March 25, two candidates were disqualified from the Berkeley High School (BHS) Associated Student Body (ASB) election under suspicion of logging into over 550 student emails and voting for themselves. The two juniors were running together for ASB President and Vice President. According to Principal Schweng, the presidential candidate, who will be referred to as Candidate 1, has since confessed. The candidate’s running mate was found to have had no knowledge of what was going on at the time, but was disqualified regardless.

Mr. Villavicencio, director of student activities, first noticed an irregularity in votes on Wednesday night, March 20. “I started seeing a change in the voting pattern on Wednesday, but there was a myriad of reasons why that could have been happening,” said Villavicencio. “It wasn’t until Thursday night … that there was a very clear sign something had been happening,” he continued.

Thursday evening, Candidate 1 took the lead, which according to Villavicencio “wasn’t necessarily suspicious, but the amount that they had come from behind was.” Villavicencio had been checking in on the votes every day, making it easy for him to pick up on a change in the pattern he had observed at the beginning of the week. He was also struck by the number of first place votes for Candidate 1, which is uncommon in ranked-choice voting — a system in which voters can vote for as many or as few candidates as they like for each position, ranking their chosen candidates in order of preference.

This year, for the first time, BHS held its ASB election online. Each student was emailed a link to a Google Form that they could fill out only once. The Commissioner of Elections, BHS senior Robert Ezra Stern, said he initially made this switch because it’s easier for him to count the votes, it’s easier for students, and it saves a lot of paper. Stern said he eventually realized, however, that there were “some benefits and clear drawbacks” to online voting that had not been anticipated. “With paper ballots you wouldn’t have been able to figure this out,” said Stern referring to the interference in the election. “It would be basically impossible,” he said.

“Every single vote was for those two candidates, first place.”

Each time the Google Form was filled out, the results automatically went into a spreadsheet showing what time each vote was cast, from what email, and for whom. Scanning over the spreadsheet, it quickly became evident to Villavicencio that what he was looking at wasn’t right. “There were pages upon pages of first place votes for four candidates, but two stood out in particular, because they didn’t deviate,” he said. These two candidates were Candidate 1 and their running mate. Villavicencio described enlarging the screen to the point that he could see as many votes as possible, while still keeping the numbers legible, and finding that “every single vote was for those two candidates, first place.”

There were clear spikes of these first place votes throughout the week, but none of them compared to a voting spree that occurred on Thursday night. “I think it started sometime Thursday evening and didn’t stop until school started,” said Villavicencio. The votes came in constantly throughout the night and stopped during first and second period, when Candidate 1 is confirmed to have been at a club meeting. The voting picked back up at the beginning of third period.

Stern and Villavicencio met Friday morning to take a closer look at what they had observed. “That’s when we started noticing the alphabetical order of last names of the voters,” said Villavicencio. “I said ‘oh, look at all the B’s voted in a row.’ We keep counting and all the C’s voted in a row, all the D’s. It just kept going on and on … It was quite obvious that, because of the time stamp, that these students, not only were they voting alphabetically, but they were seemingly doing so back to back,” he continued. By that point, Stern and Villavicencio were both convinced that these were not coincidences, and fraudulent voting had occurred. “That was the crucible, the connecting point, that something really strange was happening and would need further investigation,” said Villavicencio.

The votes being cast alphabetically suggested to Stern and Villavicencio that whoever had done this was going down a list of students and attempting to sign into their emails accounts. Every Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) student receives a student email that starts with their full name and ends with “@students.berkeley.net”. The default password is “Berkeley” followed by an ID number. Every student is told to change it, but if they don’t, all someone needs is their full name and ID number to get into their email. It appeared as though that is exactly what happened.

Villavicencio said he didn’t see the list, but believed it was one with “student information on it that included name and ID number, as well as a few other things like small school.” Principal Schweng said she knew where the list had come from, but would not say how candidates may have had access to it. Members of ASB leadership have been given records like this multiple times in the past. In February, for example, leadership sold Valentine’s Day grams. If a student didn’t know the class schedule of the person they wanted to send one to, it didn’t matter, because students on leadership had a list of student ID numbers and could look up anyone’s class schedule to deliver a gram.

An email was sent out to students whose emails had been used, urging them to change their passwords, but saying nothing else. Stern and Villavicencio spent Friday morning finding out as much as they could from the ballots, making a list of persons of interest, and attempting to prove fraudulent voting. “We were just hoping to restore some dignity to this election,” said Villavicencio.

By that afternoon, Stern and Villavicencio had compiled enough data to say that fraudulent voting was “highly suspected, but not proven,” according to Stern. They also had yet to find any one person responsible for it. After narrowing it down to only a few suspects and seeing that what Stern recognized as fraudulent votes were still coming in, the two of them set out to find which person of interest was on a computer during that time.

Stern went around campus, and said that he “personally observed two other persons of interest not having computer access.” At around 1:00 PM on Friday, Stern and Villavicencio found their final person of interest, Candidate 1, in the College and Career Center (CCC) at BHS. Villavicencio said that Candidate 1 and a friend “had planted themselves in positions [such] that their screens were only facing them, and their backs were facing the wall.” Stern then entered the room and sat down to take notes on the two students’ movements. Villavicencio stayed outside. Stern was able to match up what he witnessed with the voting pattern, finding, for instance, that when Candidate 1 closed their laptop, no signs of fraudulent voting occurred.

The students engaged in a conversation with Stern after he had been there for close to an hour, wondering what he was doing staying there from fourth to fifth period. Villavicencio said that was when he decided to walk in and instruct the students to follow him to Principal Schweng’s office. “The initial response was that they were very quiet,” said Villavicencio.

Only Candidate 1 was asked to come inside her office. When confronted, their “initial reaction was to deny that anything was wrong,” said Principal Schweng. Stern then presented to Candidate 1 what he and Villavicencio had observed in the voting patterns that week. Principal Schweng said she and Villavicencio also made it “very clear that [they] both had no reason to suspect that there was really any other explanation of the information that [they] had,” but he continued to deny any involvement.

When Stern pointed to the spikes in first place votes for Candidate 1 and their running mate, Villavicencio said Candidate 1 “tried to attach the surge in voting to posts on social media,” and explained that “there was something like a thousand views on some post that [would have sent] people running to their computers or phones to cast a ballot … alphabetically … throughout the night.”

Candidate 1 did not admit to anything that day, but was notified of their and their running mate’s disqualification by email at 4:57 PM on Friday, according to a report Stern would share with the student body a week later. The report would include details of the process taken to prove fraudulent voting along with graphs showing the various spikes in votes, how often a first place vote for Candidate 1 was immediately followed by another, and an excerpt from the results spreadsheet showing first place votes for Candidate 1 coming in one after the other in alphabetical order of last name. “This is proving fraud, noticing fraud is a whole lot easier than that,” said Stern in reference to the report, “When six or seven people with last names starting with the letters ‘R-O’ start voting in a row at 3 AM, you have to be an idiot not to notice that. This is very clear. It might seem like this is a huge investigation, but mostly this is just our efforts to prove fraud. This is not our efforts to observe fraud, because that was readily apparent.”

The following Monday, the usual ASB leadership meeting was cancelled. All 68 of the candidates, excluding the two who were disqualified, were invited to a meeting at the BHS library. “Most of them assumed it would be the results,” said Stern. He asked everyone to turn off their phone and put it on a library shelving rack. “I then went through all of this evidence in a very extensive PowerPoint presentation and informed them of the next step to happen in the election, which was disqualification,” he said. Stern also told the candidates that all fraudulent ballots were removed, and that there would be an extended election for students whose emails had been used, postponing results until that Friday. Only 27 of those nearly 550 students cast new ballots.

“No advanced technological know-how was necessary to commit this fraud except persistence.”

Word of the election spread quickly around school, along with rumors and eventually memes poking fun at the situation. Many students said that the election was “hacked,” but Stern shut this down in his report, clarifying that “no advanced technological know-how was necessary to commit this fraud except persistence.” Candidate 1 admitted their involvement in the casting of fraudulent votes to an administrator that week.

“There were other students involved,” said Principal Schweng, “but to my knowledge there was really only one student that was actually going in and doing the fraudulent voting.” The two other students involved were not candidates in the election. Disciplinary measures for these students will be kept confidential, as is BUSD policy, however, Principal Schweng and Villavicencio both said that this issue would be hard to deal with, since there are no explicit repercussions in the California Education Code that can be applied to this instance. “Anything that we can suspend students for needs to be very clearly a violation of certain things,” said Principal Schweng. “Those tend to be things like bullying, fighting, drugs, sexual harassment, etc., so that means that in times like this we need to get really creative about what natural consequences should come, and what restorative processes need to be involved,” she continued.

Principal Schweng mentioned that in this case, the most powerful form of punishment may come from the termination of other leadership positions that Candidate 1 holds on campus. “If you were entrusted with a level of leadership, in any particular area, and you do something that shows that you’re not trustworthy or able to have the credibility that it takes to hold that position, then that position needs to be taken away,” she said.

Stern added that addressing this issue is important, because not doing so may have larger implications in the world of politics outside of high school. “This is a student election for an office that matters a little bit,” he said, “We don’t want to go too over the top, although we do want to make sure that everyone knows the seriousness of this issue. Even if it’s not a serious election, the things you do in high school are the things you believe you can get away with in the real world.”