Secretary of State's response to senator's letter about election rule change

Dear Senator Alvarado,

Thank you for your letter from November 4 inquiring about the process for the reporting of vote totals in Harris County.   We appreciate your support in sharing in our mission to ensure the security and integrity of elections in Texas.  We regret the misinformation that is being disseminated at this time in response to delays in Harris County, and we appreciate the opportunity to confirm that we did not change or issue new requirements for yesterday's election as alleged.

Texas Election Code Section 129.054 prohibits voting systems from being connected to "any external communications network."  Importantly, the Texas Election Code also provides that counties may use remote substations to collect and communicate results, but that they must do so in the manner prescribed by the Secretary of State.  Section 127.1231(b).

It appears Harris County was, unfortunately, proposing to implement a process that conflicted with these laws.  As the clerk's office confirmed to us, the county was proposing to take memory cards (MBBs) containing raw vote totals and insert them into a computer connected to an intranet.  They were then going to transmit these results over a T-1 line to another computer connected to the intranet for tabulation.  The MBB and the computer tabulating results are both components of the voting system used in Harris County.  The clerk was planning to use this risky method of results reporting even though they were fully aware it was illegal to do so, and with apparent disregard to the fact that the intelligence community has repeatedly warned election officials since 2016 of the continuing desire of nation states to interfere with our election process.  Directly connecting the county's voting system to the intranet would have eliminated the protections that an air-gapped system provides and subjected the county to major security risks. 

Our office has been in discussions with voting system vendors regarding a secure method of remote transmission of vote totals over the past several years.  Most recently, we met with Hart Intercivic, the voting system vendor for Harris County, on October 2 to discuss Hart's new proposed solution for remote transmission. This proposed solution did not comply with Texas law and we now see that it looked remarkably like what Harris County was proposing to do.  We demonstrated to the Hart representatives a method for complying with Section 129.054 while allowing remote transmission of unofficial results.  The proposed procedure was to duplicate the MBB or equivalent before using the duplicate memory card to connect to the connected computer.  The original MBB or equivalent would be hand carried into the central count area and tabulated separately on a disconnected network.  The results from the two paths would then be reconciled and if there were any discrepancies between the results, the hand carried ones would prevail.

I received a phone call from the deputy clerk for elections in Harris County shortly after the meeting with Hart on October 2. I explained the proposed procedure and the deputy clerk expressed his understanding.  He called a couple of days later on an unrelated matter and another member of my staff again explained the proposed procedure.  He again expressed understanding of our proposed procedure and said that Harris County would be able to follow this process.

On October 23, 2019, we issued our updated electronic voting systems advisory in order to formalize guidance we previously gave the counties in April 2019 regarding ballot numbering requirements for electronic voting systems, an issue unrelated to Harris County's results transmission.  We decided to include language related to the electronic transmission of election results in anticipation of counties utilizing our approved procedures for next year's primary election.  We did not anticipate any adverse impact from this advisory due to our discussions over the past year and half with both vendors and county officials.  More importantly, no other county expressed any issue relating to our advisory.  We were particularly surprised by the reaction of Harris County given our conversations with their vendor and deputy for elections.

Additionally, Harris County has stated multiple times that our office knew of and approved their plan to transmit election results by connecting directly to their tabulation computer via county intranet.  This is untrue.  Harris County did not disclose their plan in any of their correspondence with our office regarding their use of the countywide polling place program.  While counties are required to establish and implement a written central counting station plan in accordance with Section 127.007, that plan is not required to be filed or approved by our office.  We did not review or approve Harris County's plan for this election. 

The security of our elections is of paramount importance to our democracy.   We remain committed to providing counties with advice and guidance on how to conduct their elections in a safe and secure manner that is compliant with Texas law.   

Please let us know if you require any further information from our office on this matter.

Keith Ingram
Director, Elections Division
Office of the Secretary of State