Cyber Talk Radio: Cyber Security and Elections

Bret Piatt, CTR Host and Jacque Callanen, Bexar County Elections Administrator - Week 56 of Cyber Talk Radio

Show Summary

This past Saturday, October 21, episode 56 of Cyber Talk Radio hit the air on 1200 WOAI and iHeartRadio streaming. I was joined by Jacque Callanen, the Bexar County elections administrator.

In the first half of the show, Jacque introduced herself telling us about her 22 years of elections experience in Bexar County, including 13 in her current role as elections administrator. Jacque also gave us a history lesson detailing the changes that have happened to the elections department since she began working there. We learned that Bexar County was among the first counties in America to switch to electronic voting, back in 2002, using the DRE (direct recording equipment) method of touchscreen voting.

Jacque then talked us through the electoral process in Bexar County and the state of Texas. She explained that across Bexar County’s 782 precincts, in a presidential election year there are up to 900 difference ballot paper combinations. The complexity of this set of combinations was, she explained, the main impetus behind the switch to electronic voting, allowing people to vote electronically meant that the county would no longer have to worry about running out of ballot papers. Bexar County now has a fleet of over 2,800 voting machines, and the machines are able to ensure that, unlike with the paper ballot, no vote is lost.

On the administrative side, Jacque explained that different states and indeed cities conduct elections in very different ways across America, the result of the constitution delegating to states the conduct of elections. As a result, in places like Illinois, cities conduct elections on their own, but in the state of Texas its constitution delegates elections to Texas’ 254 counties, 109 of which have elections administrators. Jacque explained that Bexar County has 34 early voting locations and citizens can vote in any location they choose, additionally, if you’re over 65, out of the county on election day or in jail, but not convicted, you have the right to vote by mail. Bexar County has also been the lead pioneer of email voting. Military service men and women stationed overseas are able to email their ballots to the county. Given our status as Military City, U.S.A., Bexar County now has the biggest email voting operation in America. As she reflected on the changes she has seen since she started out as an elections official, Jacque observed that in the long term she sees a move to iPhone voting, but that it will take a while for security apparatus to be able to process the change. Jacque also observed that the election code isn’t advancing as fast as technology, which is why we end up with laws prohibiting taking selfies in polling places.

In the second half of the show, Jacque explained the process for officiating election results and the steps taken to secure the ballot. During the entire election process, there are always three officials in every polling place to ensure that if one needs to step out there are still two people looking at the machines to check that no one tries to interfere with the machines themselves. When the election is complete, the local officials harvest all of the data from the machines as a pair and carry the results back to seven different centers where results are collated. At the same time, the machines are transported to the machine site and can also be checked, which verifies and secures the results. Every election official is also subject to a background check to further ensure the security of the ballot, even the transportation company used to transport the machines goes through background vetting!

While at the Defcon annual conference, hackers succeeded in hacking a bunch of election machines. Jacque is very confident in the election security process. This is because none of the machines are ever connected to the internet. When the data arrives back to elections headquarters (by hard disk) and is then combined with the results from all other precincts, the computer is still not connected to the internet. The election results are then taken by hard disk from that computer to an internet-connected computer, where results are uploaded and made visible to the public. This means that for hackers to disrupt the system they would have to gain physical access to a bunch of election machines, but they can’t do that because two officials are with the machines at all times.

The area that Jacque conceded has been more vulnerable to attacks is the voter registration system, as it is more online (because data must be transmitted to the secretary of state to verify IDs), however, even this system because of the ID check remains extremely secure.

Finally Jacque told us that the county is always looking for technical volunteers to help people vote, and to help explain the many measures in place to ensure security.

To learn more, listen to the full episode replay available here!

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