Russian interference in 2016 prompts Texas, Travis County to secure voter registration databases

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Photo Credit: Jeb Milling | Daily Texan Staff

In light of allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, state and local officials are securing voter registration databases from potential threats ahead of the upcoming November Texas general election.

The state is concerned with voter registration databases, because unlike voting machines, databases are connected to the internet, said Sam Taylor, communications director for the Texas Secretary of State’s office, in an email. 

“This does not necessarily mean they are vulnerable, but because they are connected to the internet, they could potentially be a target for hackers seeking to undermine the public’s confidence (in) the democratic process,” Taylor said.

In March 2018, Texas received a $23 million grant from the Help America Vote Act for the purpose of improving election security. In the proposed plan for utilizing the funds, Texas Secretary of State Rolando Pablos said one of his office’s primary objectives is to “enhance security and integration of Texas’ statewide computerized voter registration database.”

The state plans to allocate $1 million of the $23 million to voting equipment and voter registration systems. Nearly half of the funds will be allocated to cyber security measures, including a subscription for a cyber security training course, which will be offered at no cost to election officials in all 254 Texas counties ahead of the 2018 general election.

At the local level, Travis County election officials are also taking steps to secure their voter registration database by strengthening its firewall and closely monitoring who has access to the system, said Gretchen Nagy, Travis County’s Voter Registration Director.

Nagy said Travis County is also in the process of acquiring a newer voter registration system ahead of the next presidential election cycle.

“Our system is on the older side, so it has its limitations when it comes to things like speed or upgrades,” Nagy said. 

While there is no evidence that any voting or voter registration systems in Texas were compromised before the 2016 election or in any subsequent elections, according to the 2018 Texas Election Security Report, Nagy said allegations of Russian interference have prompted Travis County officials to take a closer look at voting processes.

“We are taking the threat of outside interference very seriously,” Nagy said. “The security has always been there, but now everyone has a heightened awareness. We are going through all the details with a fine-tooth comb and magnifying glass.”

Maya Patel, vice president of TX Votes, a nonpartisan student organization focused on improving civic engagement, said she appreciates the extra precaution.

“It’s important to make sure our elections are fair and secure and that the only votes being counted are those made by actual people going to the ballot box,” chemistry senior Patel said. “Democracy only properly functions when every citizen votes and every voice is heard. We need secure elections so that those voices can be heard — not the voice of an outside influence.”