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Texas voting machines are secure — here's how they actually work

Since the last presidential election, a variety of conspiracy theories around voting machines have emerged. With the 2022 midterms upon us, Texas election officials are working to dispel those false claims — including providing behind-the-scenes looks at how elections work.

By Josh Peck, Texas Public Radio

Across the country, people are heading to the polls to vote in the midterm election. While it’s been almost two years since the 2020 presidential election, disinformation about voting is  still a big problem — causing some to worry democracy will be tested this year  like never before.

Voting machines in particular came under intense scrutiny, with a wide range of false claims even  sparking lawsuits.

So how do the voting machines used in Texas elections actually work?

First off, only two voting systems manufacturers are certified to sell their systems in Texas: Hart InterCivic and Election Systems & Software (ES&S).

Hart InterCivic systems are used in 113 counties, including Harris and Tarrant counties. ES&S systems are used in the other 141 counties, including Bexar, Travis, and Dallas counties.

Republican Texas Secretary of State John Scott explained  in this video that these companies’ machines must be certified by the Election Assistance Commission, a bipartisan federal body, and the state.

“In Texas, we have even higher standards for our voting systems which must be certified by our office in conjunction with computer science experts and legal experts at the Texas Attorney General’s Office,” he added.

When either company makes an update to its machines or software, it must be re-certified before it can sell those updated systems.

Hacking concerns unfounded, state says

One false allegation that circulated around voting machines is that they are hackable because of a connection to the internet. Scott explained why this isn’t true.

“Voting machines in Texas are never connected to the internet,” he said. “In fact, in order to be certified in Texas elections, they cannot even have the capability of connecting to the internet.”

This allegation comes from a misunderstanding about how voting data gets transferred and counted.

Both Hart InterCivic and ES&S use encrypted USB drives inside their voting systems to collect voting data and physically move those drives to county election departments to tabulate, or count, votes. The drives are designed in such a way that they can only pull data from and provide data to pre-approved computers, so they can’t be plugged into a random laptop and be tampered with.

Scott said there are extensive protocols in place to ensure the drives themselves aren’t stolen or lost.

“Once early voting begins in Texas, there are strict requirements and chain of custody protocols that poll workers must follow continuously with each voting machine,” he said.

That includes transporting the USBs in bags with numbered seals, so it’s easy to tell if they’ve been opened before they were intended to.

Once those USBs are brought to the elections department after early voting ends, they’re locked up until they can be tabulated on Election Day.

James Huerta, the tabulation room supervisor for Bexar County’s Elections Department (BCED), explained that there is only one machine at polling sites voters use that has an internet connection.

“The only one that has communication to our office is our poll book,” he said. “And the poll book is totally different from the voting machine. The poll book just checks people in and lets us know how many people have checked in at each site.”

This is done so that voters can’t vote at multiple polling sites.

How voting data travels without the internet

In September, the BCED held a behind-the-scenes tour for Republican and Democratic party members — walking them through the process, step-by-step. The tour traced through the front office of the BCED filled with cubicles into the tabulation room where mail-in-ballots are scanned and voting data gets counted to the mail room where mail-in ballots are received and processed and finally to the warehouse where voting machines are secured between elections.

“So this room is totally isolated,” he added. “There's no connection to the outside world. So when you hear somewhere that election’s being hacked, votes are being hacked, that is not true. There’s no way.”

In Bexar County, Election Day is handled a little differently. To get voting data to the BCED in a timely manner on election night, the county can’t transport the encrypted USBs from all around Bexar County to the BCED’s downtown location.

Instead, the BCED set up six Regional Send-Sites (RSS) all around the county. USBs are brought to one of these six RSS locations and plugged into county machines there. Then, that data is transmitted using hard-line connections — literally cables underground connecting the RSS locations to the BCED — that are encrypted to the level of security used by banks. These networks are not connected to the internet, and information can only flow from the RSS locations to the BCED.

Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacque Callanen explained that voting machines themselves have numbered seals and multiple padlocks to prevent tampering. In case of an audit, paper ballots and USB drives are retained behind locked doors for a period of time after each election..

“After an election, when they come back, they stay sealed for the 60-day retention period,” she said. “We don’t open them.”

Mail-in ballots and accuracy tests

Mail-in ballots have also been the subject of numerous conspiracy theories. But these ballots can only be counted by the machines in Huerta’s tabulation room after signatures on them have been verified by a group that includes Republicans and Democrats. These ballots are retained after elections as well.

State law mandates that counties hold three public accuracy tests for voting machines — twice before every election and again afterwards. The first test is open to the public.

It was at one of those public tests in Hays County that Scott’s office recorded the video on voting machines. During the test, members of the public shouted at him and other officials, demanded answers to conspiracy theories, and disrupted the typically uneventful affair.

Despite any skepticism some Texans may have, Scott only had two words for Texas Public Radio to describe how he felt about voting machines’ security in the midterm elections.

“Extremely confident.”