Two Berkeley High School students were disqualified from their student body election under suspicion of hacking into as many as 550 students’ school-provided emails and voting for themselves, as first reported by the Berkeley High Jacket.
Berkeley High School’s Associated Student Body, or ASB, elections occur each spring, and this year, with more than 60 candidates running for about 10 positions, the election was especially competitive. But when two candidates suddenly pulled ahead in the race and students started voting in alphabetical order by last name, school staff members became suspicious.
“Certain candidates were making tremendous comebacks”
Berkeley High School’s Director of Student Activities John Villavicencio first noticed things were awry halfway through the designated voting week when two candidates began gaining serious headway in the election. It was the first time in the six years Villavicencio had been overseeing the ASB elections that ballots were cast digitally using a Google form that could only be accessed with a school email account.
“It was obvious that someone had access to information that allowed them to enter in these votes, or they found some hack of doing it,” Villavicencio said.
When he started digging deeper, Villavicencio found what he called “mass voter fraud,” with up to 550 fraudulent ballots cast on behalf of two candidates running for the ASB.
To narrow down the potential perpetrators, Villavicencio checked the IP addresses the votes were coming from, kept an eye on people he believed might be casting the fraudulent votes and watched votes come in live.
“It signaled to us that we were onto something really nefarious,” Villavicencio said.
How the perpetrator pulled it off
As the investigation continued, Villavicencio found that the fraudulently cast ballots all came from students who never changed the default passwords on their school email accounts.
“Basically, the perpetrator was running down the list and using the default setup of the login and password to enter into students’ email accounts,” Villavicencio said.
Once Villavicencio narrowed down the pool of suspects, at least one of the two suspected candidates confessed to the hacking. Since then, both students have been disqualified from the election and are facing consequences from the school administration.
Ultimately, Berkeley High School juniors Lexie Tesch and Daijah Conerly were elected president and vice president, respectively. When Tesch learned about the voter fraud, she said she was shocked and upset because she would have lost the rigged election if the fraudulent votes had not been discovered by the school’s faculty.
Conerly added that she was frustrated by the rigged election because she and Tesch often stayed up past midnight working on their campaign.
“When we first heard about it, we were really confused,” Conerly said. “Who would want to win like that?”
Looking to the future
Villavicencio said that although digital citizenship lessons are part of the freshman curriculum, he thinks Berkeley High School should consider implementing password change reminders for students and should look into giving students unique passwords for voting in future ASB elections.
“On the individual level, each one of us needs to make sure we’re managing our digital identities and changing passwords often and being healthy digital citizens,” Villavicencio said. “On a systemic level, (Berkeley High School) needs to strongly encourage students to be proactive about changing our passwords.”
Moving forward, Villavicencio said he will continue using digital ballots for ASB voting because it was easiest for students and allowed him to spot the fraudulent voting quickly. He suggested that in future years, however, voting should be confined to a shorter time window.
Tesch and Conerly are focusing on a few key platforms in their respective roles next year: creating a supply center to provide basic necessities and resources to homeless and low-income students, increasing representation for students of color and improving cultural awareness, and improving student safety by adding placards to school halls with information about what students should do in the case of an active shooter situation, fire or earthquake. Lastly, they plan to create an anonymous form for students to report sexual harassment and bullying.
Tesch, who has experienced homelessness, and Conerly, a low-income student, say they are looking forward to making an impact on their student community next year.
Overall, Villavicencio said he feels that the two students who were disqualified made a poor ethical decision.
“I believe that each of us, when faced with a pathway to decision-making … can make poor ethical choices or good ones,” he said. “In this case, the student really made a huge mistake when they violated the trust and privacy of over 500 classmates.”