County officials roll out and pay for new voting machines after inaction from Congress

Texas Politics

TRAVIS COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — This November, Travis County will operate new voting machines, paid for by Travis County taxpayers.

Despite increased talk of ongoing attempts by Russian actors to interfere in elections across the country, little has passed either chamber of Congress to help local and state officials secure elections.

At a hearing this week with Special Counsel Robert Mueller, Texas Congressman Will Hurd, R-Helotes, asked: “In your investigation did you think this was a single attempt by the Russians to get involved in our election or did you find evidence to suggest they will try to do this again?”

“It was not a single attempt,” said Mueller. “They are doing it as we sit here.”

Then, a new Senate report shows all 50 states were targeted by Russian hackers from 2014 to 2017 and the U.S. election infrastructure was not ready to fight off interference.

That report outlined three different areas of vulnerability: older voting machines, no paper backups, and vulnerable voter registration databases.

KXAN began asking local election officials for details when an AP report showed most, if-not-all, voting machines operate on Windows 7, a system that’s nearly 10 years old.

In an interview with Travis County Clerk Dava DeBeauvoir, she says this November, Travis County will have the latest and greatest in voting machines and that Windows 7 works, is reliable, and the only one commonly available.

Travis County taxpayers put up $9 million for the new voting machines and DeBeauvoir said they were what local voters asked for.

The Election Systems and Software voting machine Express Votes will print out a hard-paper copy of a ballot for the voter to put into the ballot box.

“They know what they marked. That’s what went into the ballot box. And we have that hard document,” said DeBeauvoir.

The county approved more than 2,000 voting machines and 450 ballot boxes — none of them will be connected to the internet.

DeBeauvoir says the fact that they use the nearly 10-year-old Windows 7 operating system makes them reliable.

“We don’t want the most leading edge in voting systems. We want tried and true. We want a little bit older technology because we know it works. And we don’t want patches. We don’t want a bunch of upgrades. It should be set and never changed again,” said DeBeauvoir.

Those new machines and paper back-ups were two suggestions coming out of the U.S. Senate report. DeBeauvoir says the most vulnerable part of the election system is voter registration because it’s connected to the internet.

“The Russians got into parts that were connected to the internet. The DNC’s emails those are connected to the internet. And our voting registration systems,” said DeBeauvoir. “They made attempts to get into those. Those are connected to the internet. We should be paying more attention to voter registration.”

The Texas Secretary of State and the Travis County Voter Registrar handle that. On Friday, Travis County Voter Registrar Bruce Elfant said that the Department of Homeland Security just briefed the county on the latest threats and that in the past three months, the state successfully audited Travis County’s registration system.

On the state level, a spokesman for the Secretary of State says last year they used $24 million dollars to upgrade and improve election security. They added a multi-part authentication process for when registrars access the database. They included a new alert system that detects suspicious cyber activity.

“The Office of the Secretary of State received over $24 million last year from the federal government through Help America Vote Act (HAVA) funding in order to improve elections and make them more secure. Our office has used a portion of this money to take additional steps to further strengthen election infrastructure in the state of Texas,” said Stephen Chang, Director of Communications for the Texas Secretary of State’s Office.

It’s important to note, the new Senate report says Russian hackers tried to get into all 50 states, but the Texas Secretary of State and Department of Homeland Security reports they were not successful in Texas.

Lawmakers in Congress have been working on new funding for the state’s election system.

Democrats say it’s being blocked.

“Unfortunately, leader McConnell — as with so many things the House has passed — refuses to bring it up for Senate action,” said Rep. Loyd Doggett, D-Austin, in an interview last week.

The bill would give states $775 million in grants over the next two years.

KXAN asked Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Texas Senator Ted Cruz for their take on that and didn’t get responses.

Texas Senator John Cornyn didn’t comment either, but rather pointed to two measures the Senate already passed: one that makes it a federal crime to try to hack a voting system and another that deports non-citizens who try to illegally sway elections.

Both are currently pending in the House.

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