Are Harris County's voting machines vulnerable to hackers?

A Rice professor is raising questions.

HOUSTON -- Just days after the FBI issued warnings to state election officials about cyberattacks, a Rice University professor is raising serious concerns about the security of computerized voting systems in Harris County and around the country.

"There's already evidence that suggests Russians are trying to manipulate our elections," said Dr. Dan Wallach, who teaches computer science and security. "This is not hypothetical."

Wallach believes a determined hacker, backed by a foreign government, could attempt to throw an election by inserting malicious code into a computerized voting system. He says the machines used by Harris County are vulnerable.

"It is not a tamper-proof system," says Wallach. "One machine can overwrite another machine's memory or destroy its votes. All sorts of incredible damage is possible."

Wallach was part of a team that studied the same the system in California. He says his group's findings of vulnerabilities prompted the California Secretary of State to mandate printers be added to each voting machine. The so-called "Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail" system allows a voter to physically get a printout of their selections, which they would then put into a ballot box. The paper would also serve as a back-up in case there is a question about the legitimacy of a computerized result.

The voting system currently used in Harris County is called the eSlate. The system is made by Texas based Hart InterCivic. The company says its machines, which are assembled in Sugar Land, are used in 17 states.

A Hart InterCivic official called Wallach's claims about vulnerabilities inaccurate and said they "encourage people to have fears that are irrational."

The company says the machines have multiple safeguards in place and are tested to prevent attacks from hackers.

"I have total confidence that we have the best solution for Harris County," said County Clerk Stan Stanart about the voting machines. "We have never lost a vote."

Stanart says the machines are tested multiple times before each election and security seals placed on every piece of equipment ensure they are not tampered with.

"For someone to be able to do something that we could not detect is in the realm of getting hit with a meteorite," said Stanart. "There are too many processes in place to prevent it."

Harris County has more than 7,500 eSlate voting machines.

At a voting location, each machine is connected to a judge control booth, which records the votes on small drive, similar to at USB, called a mobile ballot box. 

The drives are then taken to one of four locations where vote totals are uploaded through a secure line to a central computer. The clerk's office says the election system is never connected to the internet.

"We have confidence that it is a great system," Stanart said. "It has never been hacked, never showed that a vote has been changed or any vote lost."

But Wallach believes the system carries risks. He's pushing for election officials to give up computers and use plain paper instead.

"Right now the best technologies involve paper, where a human marks a piece of paper and then it is scanned electronically," said Wallach. "The paper can then be audited to see if it matches up against the vote."


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