Election security: Officials say Texas voter databases haven’t been hacked

Hart eSlates and DAUs (Disabled Access Units) both allow voters to vote electronically.
Hart eSlates and DAUs (Disabled Access Units) both allow voters to vote electronically. pmoseley@star-telegram.com

Texas election systems are safe from hackers — so far.

As more than 20 other states grapple with hackers targeting their voter registration systems, Texas election officials say this state’s electoral system has not been breached.

“We haven’t found anything,” Texas Secretary of State Carlos Cascos told the Star-Telegram. “We don’t have any information … that we have been threatened or that there has been an attempted threat to hack into our systems.

“We’ve got protocols in place, safety valves in place, to alert us to something like that.”

Federal officials are offering few details or specifics about why voting systems across the country are being hacked.

They do, however, say that the target has been voter databases, not actual voting systems.

FBI Director James Comey said, “There’s no doubt that some bad actors have been poking around.” And he stressed that the FBI is trying to determine “what mischief is Russia up to in connection with our election.”

Even though Texas has yet to be affected, that doesn’t mean the state is immune.

“We should be alert because other states have had intrusions into their electoral systems,” said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

“There is no indication that any electoral outcomes have been compromised, but the fact that people are trying to hack into voter registration lists — and potentially into the voting computer systems — causes concern,” he said.

In this already highly unusual election year, 18 states have turned to Homeland Security officials for cybersecurity help after suspected breaches in their election systems were found.

These breaches — which many say are not expected to affect the election — gave critics even more ammunition to question the integrity of U.S. elections.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., has long said he worries that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “goal is tampering with this election.”

And GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, who has long said he believes that the election will be “rigged,” persistently asks supporters to sign up as poll watchers for Election Day. He told Fort Worth supporters during an August fundraiser that he doesn’t like electronic voting machines because they leave no paper trail. “He said he wished we still had the old-fashioned booths you went in to vote in a long time ago,” a fundraiser attendee said.

FBI officials, who for months have been looking into cyberattacks such as the hack of the Democratic National Committee, sent out a warning to election officials across the country, including those in Texas.

The warning stated that foreign hackers made their way into one state’s computer system and actually took voter registration data from a second. Th states were later identified as Arizona and Illinois.

Beyond that, attacks against more than a dozen other states’ voter registration systems have been identified.

These sought-after databases include information on every voter in that state — names, addresses, the last four digits of voters’ Social Security numbers and the voter user identification number for each voter. Much of this information is public record, depending on each state’s rules.

But hackers didn’t make their way in the Texas database, as far as Cascos knows.

“I don’t have any idea what they are trying to do, other than disrupt the voter base,” he said. “If they are trying to influence an election, they are not going to do it through the voter registration database.”

Tarrant County

Local election officials say they are occasionally asked about voter security.

“Security is always a concern, but we have multiple levels of security in place to prevent any outside intrusion into our election systems,” said Frank Phillips, Tarrant County’s election administrator, who said he has had no indication that any local data breaches have been attempted.

Phillips said strict safeguards surround the local voting system, the Hart Voting System.

“From the generation of the ballot by our office to the tabulation of votes at our centralized counting center, security measures are in place to ensure no unauthorized individual has access to the system,” he said. “Neither the vote tabulation program nor any other component of the Hart Voting System is ever connected to the internet or an external network.”

He said the county has a “very robust system” of safeguards and security measures.

Among them:

▪ Equipment safeguards: “The eSlate system includes both physical and electronic intrusion detection controls, such as numbered wire seals [commonly used in elections], and time-stamped transaction logs that record every system action related to the voting process,” Phillips said. “Data cannot be inserted or altered by unauthorized personnel because the database structure is proprietary and is protected by encrypted passwords determined by the elections administrator.”

▪ External access safeguards: “The eSlate voting system is activated by the voter using a randomly generated four-digit code; there are no smart cards or other programmable devices that require an external access point into the voting hardware,” Phillips said. “This eliminates the possibility of hackers or others being able to gain access to the system in order to tamper with or subvert the election.” Also, he said, tabulation computers and voting devices are never connected to an external network such as the internet.

“Tarrant County has a very robust system of security measures to prevent intrusion into our voter registration system on a local level,” Phillips said.

There are other concerns about voter security.

Aaron Harris of the DFW-based Direct Action Texas political advocacy group has said he plans to reveal “evidence that two current elected officials are in office due to election fraud” during an Oct. 17 912 Fort Worth meeting at the Elks Lodge in Fort Worth.

‘Protocols in place’

As questions about election security remain, a variety of people may be observing votes cast across the country — and in Texas — during early voting or on Election Day.

The Justice Department has yet to announce whether its Civil Rights Division will send federal observers to monitor elections in Tarrant County and/or Texas.

The Texas secretary of state’s office plans to send about 200 inspectors across the state to ensure that everything runs smoothly. Officials have yet to determine which polling sites these inspectors will visit.

At the same time, international observers from Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe may make their way to polling sites, although they can’t enter polling places. And regular Texans chosen by their party or campaigns may also serve as poll watchers.

Meanwhile, secretaries of state nationwide issued an open letter to Congress, calling on officials to work together “to prevent further intrusions.”

“In the short-term, our goal is to avoid distractions and work together with our federal partners to secure the systems that are in place for the November election,” according to the letter from the National Association of Secretaries of State. “Long-term, a larger dialogue is needed to avoid actions that would interfere with – or simply be perceived as interfering with – public ownership of elections by local communities and the citizens who run them, or be seen as threatening transparency and trust in our imperfect, but time-tested system of participatory democracy.

“Our collective imperative must be to ensure that actions to protect our elections do not create undue alarm or mistrust that will threaten voters’ confidence in the outcomes.”

Anna M. Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley

Voter ID

Texas voters have more options to vote this year because of a court ruling thatthe state’s voter ID law violates the Voting Rights Act.

Now, any voter who doesn’t have a photo ID — and can’t “reasonably obtain a form of approved photo ID” before the election — may sign a declaration stating why he or she couldn’t obtain a photo ID. Then such voters just need to show a document such as an original birth certificate, current utility bill, bank statement, paycheck or government document. After that, they should be cleared to vote.

State Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, recently met with Texas Secretary of State Carlos Cascos because she was worried that word wasn’t getting out that Texans without a valid photo ID may still vote on Election Day.

“The Court made it clear that no voter should be questioned about whether or not their statement is reasonable or if their declaration is truthful,” Collier said. “Our job as elected and appointed officials is to make it easier, not harder, for Texas voters to make their voices heard.”

Election officials continue to encourage voters who can get a photo ID to do so before Election Day.

The Texas Department of Public Safety offers Election Identification Certificates at its driver’s license offices during regular hours to Texas voters who don’t have any other valid form of photo ID.

Also, a number of driver’s license offices will be open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Oct. 22 and 29, only to issue Election Identification Certificates. Local offices open include these locations:

▪ Fort Worth-East Office, 3500 Miller Ave.

▪ Fort Worth-Mega Center, 8301 Brentwood Stair Road.

▪ Fort Worth-South Office, 6413 Woodway Drive.

▪ Hurst Office, 624 NE Loop 820.

The seven state-approved photo IDs are: Texas driver’s license, Texas Election Identification Certificate, Texas personal identification card, Texas license to carry a concealed handgun, U.S. military ID card with photo, U.S. citizenship certificate with photo, and U.S. passport.

Are you registered?

To find out if you are registered to vote, go to VoteTexas.gov or call the Tarrant County Elections Office at 817-831-8683.

To see a sample ballot, go to the Tarrant County elections website.

To ask for a ballot by mail, call the Tarrant County Elections Office at 817-831-8683. The deadline to request a ballot by mail is Oct. 28.

To learn more about the candidates and issues, go to the Star-Telegram online voter guide.

Sources: Texas secretary of state, Tarrant County Elections Office

Election information

Election Day will be here before you know it. For more information about candidates on the Nov. 8 ballot, go to the Star-Telegram website, www.star-telegram.com, to read the online Voters Guide.