AUSTIN — Texans may have turned out in record numbers for Tuesday’s primary, but the voting systems they used need a serious upgrade, according to a new study.
The report — “Election Security in 50 States” — comes from the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C., public-policy research organization that gave Texas and six other states ‘D’ election-security grades.
“Texas allows voting using machines that do not provide a paper record and fails to mandate statewide post-election audits that test the accuracy of election outcome,” leaving no “confirmation that ballots are cast as the voter intends and counted as cast,” according to the report, published last month.
Such practices leave the state vulnerable to hacking and malfunction, according to the report, which gave five states ‘F’ grades and none an ‘A.’
While members were appointed before the report appeared, the Select Committee on Election Security, appointed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, met recently to address what Patrick said last fall in a statement were, “recent election irregularities” in Texas.
Patrick charged the committee with making “recommendations to safeguard the integrity of elections, and ensure the will of the people is reflected through their ballot and carried out in presidential elections.”
The Department of Homeland Security last year told officials here and in 20 other states that Russia targeted their election systems during the 2016 presidential campaign.
The Associated Press reported that Texas officials last year said the DHS “was wrong when it told them their elections systems had been targeted by ‘Russian government cyber actors’ during the 2016 presidential campaign.”
“Texas Secretary of State Rolando Pablos told the department in a letter ... that his office has ‘determined conclusively’ that they weren’t targeted. He also says federal investigators relied on ‘incorrect information,’” according to the AP.
“Department of Homeland Security spokesman Scott McConnell said ... that in some states hackers didn’t directly scan election systems but looked for vulnerabilities to exploit in other government computer systems as a way to get into the election systems. He didn’t specifically comment on Texas.”
Despite the Center for American Progress report, the Department of Homeland Security warning and Patrick’s stated concerns about “irregularities,” Parker County elections administrator Don Markum said Tuesday he has no worries about the integrity of the county’s elections.
“Obviously, I’m not worried about it, because we take every precaution and we follow the law to the letter,” Markum said in interview with the Weatherford Democrat. “We’ve never had a problem before. In fact, today, we have two poll watchers, watching us do everything. If something goes wrong, they’ll be the first to tell everybody. We’ve had poll watchers before, and when they leave they tell us what a great job we did.”
But even if the Russian government failed to penetrate Texas’ voting processes, there are problems.
Keith Ingram, director of the secretary of state’s elections division, told the Select Committee on Election Security that there is currently no requirement for electronic voting systems to have a paper component.
“Texas should immediately switch to a statewide paper ballot voting system and update its post-election audit procedures,” according to the report. “In addition, Texas should prohibit all absentee voters from returning voted ballots electronically.
“Going forward, all voted ballots should be returned by mail or delivered in person.”
In committee testimony, John Oldham, Fort Bend County’s election administrator, said that in decades of election-work, he’s seen “all kinds of voter fraud,” but that it’s usually perpetrated by election officials in polling places, and “most commonly with elections conducted on paper ballots.”
Oldham said that he’s never seen a paperless direct-recording electronic voting machine remotely hacked “nor will they be, because none can be accessed through the internet.”
There is no need for Parker County to do anything different in regards to its voting procedures, Markum said.
“There’s not really anything to do differently, because there was no problem for us,” he said. “Like I said ... I’ve never had an issue with the integrity of the voting. We haven’t ever had an issue. Nobody has complained about it.
“There are people who complain about it, but they don’t really know what goes into it. They’re going by what they heard on the internet. So that’s what they go by. But we had two people watching, and we had someone watching during the last election. We have poll watchers all the time. Like I said to our poll watcher today, ‘I welcome you guys. I hope you’ll walk out and tell me everything’s okay there.’”
Still, Texas does face vulnerabilities, the greatest of which is its voting systems, Oldham said.
Most were purchased after the Help America Vote Act of 2002, which aimed to reform voting practices, and provided money to upgrade voting systems and election administration.
The technology needs repair, and Oldham said ongoing maintenance is a “huge” problem.
“Everybody bought at the same time,” Oldham said. “Now everybody’s system is getting old.
“Now we’re faced with another huge public expense.”
The 50-state report gave Texas unsatisfactory grades in three of seven categories assessed, fair in three and mixed in one.
“There’s things we can do better,” Oldham said. “Most involves physical rather than cyber security.”
Oldham also said Texas’ voter-registration system has vulnerabilities, as do its election-reporting systems.
Those who administer elections also need more training, he said, along with annual certification, which Texas doesn’t require.
Some of Texas’ polling place personnel are seriously deficient in knowing how to run equipment or in how to run elections, Oldham said.
Part of the problem: counties won’t fund travel or allow out-of-state travel for training.
“That could change,” Oldham said. “You all could help facilitate that change.”
The committee has not scheduled a second meeting; recommendations are expected by the start of the 2019 legislative session.
John Austin covers the Texas Statehouse for CNHI LLC’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Weatherford Democrat reporter Maggie Fraser contributed reporting to this story.