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Could Travis County Have The Best Bet Against Election Hacking?

STAR-Vote, a technology being developed in Texas, could be the answer to election security.

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AP Images | The Dallas Morning News, Ron Baselice

Revelations that Russian hackers tried to break into Dallas County’s web servers, likely with the intention of accessing voter registration files, in the lead up to last November’s election renewed concerns about Texas election security. Both Wednesday night’s news out of Dallas and a Bloomberg report on Monday—which said that the Russian hacking attempts affected 39 states—are forcing states to look inward and re-examine the security of their local and state-level electoral technologies.

The particular targets of Russian hackers were the accounts of elections officials and voter registration rolls, which are connected to the internet and are unlike the voting systems that actually do the recording and vote tallying. But a possible security breach of one area of electoral technologies has the potential to ripple out and affect the integrity of other ones. “The reason why this whole Russian hacking thing is a wake-up call is because we’ve been caught not paying as much attention as we should have in an area that all of us didn’t think was that vulnerable,” Dana DeBeauvoir, the Travis County clerk since 1987, says. “And yet it has turned out to be extremely vulnerable in ways we did not expect.”

DeBeauvoir’s office, however, is on the cusp of a new approach that could reinvent electoral technology security within Texas and across the United States. DeBeauvoir is one of the key figures that has been working on STAR-Vote (Secure, Transparent, Auditable, and Reliable), an end-to-end encrypted electronic voting system. The Travis County Clerk’s office, the Texas elections office, Rice University professors Dan S. Wallach and Michael D. Byrne, and other academics came together to create the system, which encrypts votes cast and stores them in a database. This anonymized database is then made available to third parties, such as local governments, journalists, non-profits, and even the voters themselves and allows them to audit and verify votes. As DeBeauvoir puts it, STAR-Vote ensures that “the voter’s vote is cast as intended and counted as cast.”

DeBeauvoir’s work with the technology dates back almost twelve years. Along with similar initiatives such as Los Angeles County’s Voting Systems Assessment Project, San Francisco’s efforts to create an open source voting project, and the Colorado Risk-Limiting Audit Project, STAR-Vote could mean that the problems with electoral security are close to being answered.

But while Travis County makes advances in voting machine technology, the low level of sophistication that allowed for even close calls in Russian hacking attempts reveals just how painfully under-protected voter rolls are. Wallach, a professor at Rice University in the computer science department, echoes that these vulnerabilities have been a concern for cybersecurity professionals for years now, adding that though federal officials are beginning to take it seriously, it is now the responsibility of individual states to take action. “It’s very difficult for me to predict how and when which state agencies and which states are going to step up and recognize that their existing voting machines and voter registration systems are vulnerable to this class of attack,” Wallach says. “I mean, just last week James Comey said that this wasn’t a one-shot deal, they might be coming back. And that to me is a huge warning.”

Joe Kiniry, CEO of Free & Fair—a group out of Portland that makes election systems—has been following STAR-Vote since its inception, and has noticed a glaring gap in the voter registration technologies. Currently, the only major project taking steps to encrypt voter registration rolls is the Electronic Registration Information Center, which operates across 20 states and Washington, D.C. “Voter registration systems are becoming a target like anything else,” Kiniry says. “And if you don’t have legitimate people with proper credentials building and supporting the systems in an open and transparent way, we’re going to be screwed in two or three ways instead of just one.”

Many are seeing promise in STAR-Vote for the future of secure electoral technologies. When the Travis County Clerk’s office called for proposals for the technology in October 2016, Kiniry says that Free & Fair put in a bid. They are expected to hear whether or not they’ve received the project in the near future. “I think it’s really important because risk-limiting audits, which we will see in Texas by virtue of STAR-Vote, are sort of the most critical component nationwide because you can run those audits on any election using any crappy software or processes so long as there’s a paper ballot trail,” Kiniry says. “And that’s a thing that we can do that would improve elections in America more than anything else. STAR-Vote really gives Travis County and eventually Texas and eventually the U.S.A the one-two punch that we really need to not have 2016 again.”


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    I helped write–with the advice and counsel of some UT computer experts—a report to the Texas Legislature back in 1976 that talked about these kinds of potential problems with computer security of the more primitive voter punch card system used then…..No one paid attention back then….The only bill that resulted was vetoed by the governor because of concerns by the county clerks about it interfered in their business. Travis County was one of the worst examples of problems with these systems….but that was pre Dana, I am pleased to see that she has continued her efforts to improve the system. At the time there was some talk about having the State sponsor a design contest to develop a secure uniform system for the State instead of the numerous different systems from paper ballots to the old style mechanical voting machines, but nothing came of it…..too many felt it interfered with the “free enterprise system”. Maybe it is time to resurrect that idea.

  • $X$Whipster

    Hardly. Any system can be hacked by it’s own administrators.

    • Neal McBurnett

      It may seem obvious that you have to trust the administrators, but the great thing about STAR-Vote is precisely that it protects against manipulation by the administrators. It allows individual voters to challenge the system while they’re voting. If the system tries to manipulate their vote, the voter can challenge the result, providing evidence of the problem, via a more usable variant of the “Benaloh Challenge” described at https://arxiv.org/pdf/1504.03778.pdf

  • BCinBCS

    I have always been a proponent of the “air gap” security system.

    Keep all vital records on data storage that is behind secure doors and not connected to the internet. All data that is collected on computers outside that must be added to the secure database must be printed and then scanned using optical character recognition software on a separate, secure, unconnected computer. It’s a bulky process but it is an extremely secure system.

    • $X$Whipster

      That’s already the case with most of the election systems used in the U.S., “air gap,” that doesn’t keep them from being hacked with the MBB memory cards which serve as a “touch point” and which store the votes but also can story executable software…

      • WUSRPH

        What makes that less likely to be an effective strategy is that you are dealing with thousands and thousands of such MBB card from thousands of voting stations/machines. The kind of hacking you envision might work in a small local election, but in anything beyond that the number of people involved would make keeping it secret virtually impossible.

        The only chance of making it work would probably require that everybody use the same kind of voting system, with the same program and get the MBBs from a single supplier, who equipped them with all with executable software.

        If you limited the fraud to only a few boxes it would probably stand out too much and would be noticed. You’d have to spread your fake/changed votes out among a large number of voting boxes, a few to each box, to have any real chance to hide it.

        All this is theoretically possible….but more than improbable.

        • $X$Whipster

          It only takes 1 MBB corrupted with an executable software program to change the vote results for en entire local jurisdiction (county) of election results. You don’t have to hack each and every MBB being counted. You only need to hack 1 MBB and “touch it” to the central count machine and away your hack goes. There is no need to have an internet connection or wifi to get into the system, and it takes only 1 uninterrupted and unaccounted for touch point. The election administrator can go back and edit/delete portions of the audit log that would otherwise show that. Actually, usually the audit logs are not even looked at by outside parties. It’s not improbable. It happens, in fact it is the primary manner in which the current systems are hacked.

          • WUSRPH

            In Texas for a statewide race that would require 254 people in your conspiracy. Even if you limited it only to major counties, that would still require a number of people and, with the results out of line with past experience, would immediately raise a red flag

          • $X$Whipster

            Most hacks are not statewide. Most races are not statewide. Hacks are done one county at a time.

          • Jed

            it only took a handful of counties to swing the presidential election.

            this idea that it would be prohibitively difficult to hack an american election is looking less and less convincing … as the news gets closer and closer to learning that it may have already happened.

  • FMHenry


    We have been pushing over plenty of stone-walls put in
    place by the election systems (fed, state, local)….for too many

    The root defect of our election systems lays with the ‘political
    parties’ and elected/appointed officials (fed, state, local) via
    their enactments of election laws/practices for some 240
    years and wittingly/unwittingly have been ignoring the
    individual voter’s “Full Voting Rights”….!

    Please keep pushing for our ‘Rights’.

    Thanks and Good Luck,

    Frank Henry
    Full Voting Rights Advocate
    Cottonwood, Arizona
    Tel: 928-649-0249
    e-mail: [email protected]

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  • Hamilton Richards

    This article fails to mention (except obliquely in the Kiniry quote) Travis County’s admirable STAR-vote system’s main point, which is that for each voter it prints a paper summary of the voter’s ballot selections. The voter inspects it for correctness and deposits it into the official ballot box. The paper ballots are the official records of the voters’ choices, and they are available for recounting, by machine or by hand, as many times as it takes to convince the losers that they lost. And paper is not vulnerable to hacking.