Texas election officials train to spot vulnerabilities ahead of 2020

State & Regional

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Hundreds of election administrators, county clerks, and voter registrars converged on a hotel ballroom in Austin for training with the Texas Secretary of State’s office.

The theme of the week is election security and integrity.

The nearly 800 election officials came from across the state to share best practices to prevent tampering with Texas elections.

“I am getting a lot of information crammed into my brain in three days,” Archer County election administrator and voter registrar Christie Mooney said.

Mooney is a one-person operation in Texoma, keeping track of approximately 6,270 voters in the county, and administering elections.

“Every election official needs to learn the new laws that came out of the legislative session that just happened,” she explained.

One new change emphasized at the seminar was a cyber security assessment approved by lawmakers this year.

“They’ll come in, assess our county, look at weaknesses and vulnerabilities, tell us where we need to set up safeguards, and protect ourselves and our counties,” Mooney said.

Leaders within the state’s elections division hope they are able to provide consistency at the local level through the training this week and the upcoming assessments.

“This year in particular, we are taking a strong focus on election security, because that is kind of at the forefront of everybody’s minds right now, and so we’re doing our best to give them the tools they need to feel prepared going into 2020,” said Christina Adkins, legal director of the Texas Secretary of State’s elections division.

“We want to make sure that all of our counties — regardless of the support that they have locally — are given some basic security tools to make sure that at a minimum we are kind of elevating the whole state,” Adkins stated.

Some of that effort includes technology upgrades.

The state received $24 million last year from the federal government through Help America Vote Act (HAVA), according to a spokesperson from the Texas Secretary of State’s office.

“Our office has used a portion of this money to take additional steps to further strengthen election infrastructure in the state of Texas, including instituting a multi-factor authentication process for election officials to ensure only those who are authorized can gain access to the statewide registration database,” Stephen Chang, communications director for the Texas Secretary of State’s office, wrote in an emailed statement on Friday.

The state also installed a system to alert officials of suspicious cyber activity.

At the county level, some agencies are purchasing new voting machines and upgrades to overall systems.

“The good news for Smith County is that we just upgraded and so we used it in the May elections,” Nelson explained. “We didn’t have a lot of city and school elections but we were able to test it out. It worked perfectly and we are looking forward to having it used all across the county in November.”

At the seminar, the Department of Homeland Security delivered a series of presentations on Tuesday, running through realistic scenarios for county officials to learn from. They also discussed how to recognize email phishing and other ways counties could be vulnerable to outside entities trying to gain access.

“DHS has indicated that in past years there is no evidence that there has been any kind of compromise of our voting systems, our election systems here in Texas. We want to keep it that way,” Adkins said. “And that’s why we want to continue to do training with our local folks.”

In addition to the county-level training, the Texas Secretary of State’s office is also planning similar sessions for city election officials and leaders from the state’s political parties.

“The citizens of the state of Texas should know that we take elections very seriously and we want the integrity to be there,” said Smith County elections administrator Karen Nelson. “We want every vote counted like it should be, that’s why we all come together to try to get as much information as we can to make sure that happens.”

Nelson said when she returns to East Texas, she plans to create a disaster plan in case the county’s phone lines or computer systems go down.

“I got my notebook out and started making a ton of notes so that when I get back I have a pretty good project to start on,” she said.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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