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Texas Works To Create A More Secure Electronic Voting System


We may never know the full extent to which Russia tried to interfere with the 2016 election, but a new report issued this week by the Senate Intelligence Committee says Russian-backed hackers tried to break into voting-related systems in six states. Lawmakers have urged local governments to start switching to more secure technology. And in Texas, there's an effort underway to create the most-secure electronic voting machine possible. Here's Ashley Lopez with our member station KUT in Austin.

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Elliott Gurwitz is a computer programmer living in San Antonio, about an hour and a half south of Austin. He says for years he's been skeptical of the voting machines at his local polling place.

ELLIOTT GURWITZ: In San Antonio, you walk in. And you basically - it's all electronic. You push buttons, and then you leave.

LOPEZ: Gurwitz says he wishes there was a way to make sure the computer he's using isn't making any mistakes.

GURWITZ: It would be nice if you could see something printed or have some kind of receipt or something where it's more than just you pushing a button and they say, oh, yeah, your vote is counted.

LOPEZ: Roughly a dozen states, including Texas, have counties that are using electronic voting machines that don't create a paper trail. This is something that has rankled academics and cybersecurity experts for years. Dana Debeauvoir is a county clerk in Austin. She says she and other Texas election administrators have heard a lot of complaints about this.

DANA DEBEAUVOIR: And the problem with that was we election administrators had no authority to change the equipment or make updates or buy different equipment because it was certified and you had to buy certified equipment. So we were the least-culpable people in the whole group of folks who were involved in this.

LOPEZ: But as Austin's voting machines got older, Debeauvoir looked around and wasn't happy with the replacement options. She says she couldn't find an electronic voting system that was truly more secure. So Debeauvoir decided to reach out to a group of security experts and academics.

DEBEAUVOIR: And so I challenged the group. And I told them, I said, look, if you want a better voting system, then work with us. And I will help you develop a voting system that meets your needs. And I will make sure that it works properly in the field, that it's a practical system.

LOPEZ: And so a team of election administrators and academics worked together for roughly a decade. They called their project STAR-Vote. That stands for Secure Transparent Auditable and Reliable. And what they came up with was an electronic voting system that created a paper receipt for every voter. It also created a paper record that could be checked against the electronic voting totals. Philip Stark, an auditing expert from UC Berkeley, was part of that team.

PHILIP STARK: One of the neat things about the STAR-Vote project was that it was being designed from the ground up to be auditable efficiently.

LOPEZ: Stark says STAR-Vote was designed to upend a system that relied on blind trust. STAR-Vote would allow voters to make sure their votes are counted correctly, and it would create a paper record that couldn't be hacked. But STAR-Vote hit a big snag. Debeauvoir says she couldn't find a voting machine manufacturer to make an open-source system, both a key security and cost-control feature of star vote.

DEBEAUVOIR: One of the reasons why we had asked for open source is because we wanted to significantly reduce the cost of these voting systems to the counties.

LOPEZ: Besides the actual hardware, Debeauvoir says election administrators pay for the software licensing of their voting machines. Philip Stark says an open source system would amount to a big financial hit for manufacturers.

STARK: I'm not surprised that none of the existing manufacturers of voting systems wanted to bid on it because it's basically a radically different model that competes with theirs, which if it were adopted, would require them to retool in some fundamental way.

LOPEZ: Debeauvoir is pressing on, though. She's currently asking manufacturers to build everything else in the STAR-Vote design. And even though they won't get STAR-Vote, Austin voters will be using something similar to it.

DEBEAUVOIR: What we're going to get out of our next voting system is voters are going to get that paper record, and they're going to have all of the advantages of electronic voting with its additional security. We're going to get best of both worlds.

LOPEZ: Debeauvoir says she hopes to get the new voting system in place before the 2020 presidential election. For NPR News, I'm Ashley Lopez in Austin.

(SOUNDBITE OF KURT VILE'S "WALKING ON A PRETTY DAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ashley Lopez
Ashley Lopez is a political correspondent for NPR based in Austin, Texas. She joined NPR in May 2022. Prior to NPR, Lopez spent more than six years as a health care and politics reporter for KUT, Austin's public radio station. Before that, she was a political reporter for NPR Member stations in Florida and Kentucky. Lopez is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and grew up in Miami, Florida.