What officials are doing to protect your vote

By Debbie Strauss - Special Projects Producer, Andy Cerota - Anchor/Reporter

HARRIS COUNTY, Texas - Over the years, Reda Hicks has juggled being a mom as her husband serves in the military.

"I am the wife of a retired Special Forces Army — a Green Beret,” she said.

She knows firsthand the importance of national security.

For generations, it was defended on the battlefield.

Hicks, who is also a lawyer, works with the League of Women Voters.

She is keenly aware that as another Election Day rolls around, there is a new threat to our security.

"I think the possibility of our elections getting hijacked is something we should take seriously," Hicks said.

Just the impression of a problem can keep voters away from the polls.

"Secure elections are important for a couple of reasons. The biggest one is voter confidence," Hicks said.

There are more than 2 million registered voters in Harris County.

Recently, the county clerk and his staff held a news conference and unveiled dozens of billboards around town to hype that Harris County's eSlate paperless voting machines are safe and secure.

"We go to great deals to ensure the integrity of our computer systems," said clerk Stan Stanart.

Dan Wallach, who has been a computer science professor at Rice University for 20 years, knows so much about election security that he's even testified before Congress.

"Warfare doesn't just mean things going kaboom," Wallach said. "Cyber is now part of warfare. We have not yet figured out how to build a computer that can't be hacked."

Wallach's first concern about Election Day is paperless voting machines.

"We're often told, 'Don't worry. These machines are not connected to the internet.' Then we discover they are," Wallach said. "You're connecting it over a modem. That means you're using the phones. That means you're using the internet."

“Are the Harris County voting machines connected to the internet?” reporter Andy Cerota asked Stanart.

“Never,” Stanart said, adding that it’s only connected to a secure modem. “Where we dial to an old-fashioned landline to one of our four drop-off sites. It's an encrypted line.”

In Washington County, there are more cattle than registered voters.

Beth Rothermel is the county clerk.

"We understand the public has concerns about hacking, about things going on during the elections that shouldn't be going on," Rothermel said.

In her county, they still use paper ballots and leave the computers to the big cities.

"In Washington County, we have optical scanners ballots, which are paper ballots," Rothermel said. "That paper ballot is hard to beat."

"You can't attack paper through the internet," Wallach said. "There is no message that you can send over the internet that will change the message that is written on a box of paper."

According to Wallach, a second vulnerability in our elections is the registration. Every county has its own process.

"We now understand the Russians to have taken in 2016, they appeared to have been trying to hack into state and county voter registration databases," said Wallach. "Might they try to selectively delete voters? Might they try to invent fake voters? Is their goal simply to create chaos?"

The third problem, if there were to be a problem on Election Day, like hacking, is that there is no agreed-upon process to rectify the problems.

Harris County officials said they are ready, though.

"We have backup equipment, we have technicians in the field. We are ready for anything we can conceive and more to take care of on Election Day," Stanart said.

With vulnerabilities out there, what does that ultimately mean for Election Day?

"It means if we have a very close race decided by a small number of votes, the winner will be happy and the loser will demand evidence," Wallach said. "It'll be a wild ride."

According to the Texas Secretary of State:

"There is no evidence that any voting or voter registration systems in Texas were compromised before the 2016 Election or in any subsequent elections.

"Additionally, the Department of Homeland Security has offered a statement reiterating this fact as well.

"Election security is a top priority for the Texas Secretary of State’s office as we continue to employ effective and forward-thinking cybersecurity measures to further strengthen our state’s elections systems and safeguard our elections infrastructure against any malicious cyber activity.

"We have worked continuously to educate our election officials through both in person training and written materials on the numerous protections that are in place and are required by state law."

 

DOCUMENTS: View Secretary of State's report on hacking investigation

 

 

 

 

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