Photo: Jerry Lara /San Antonio Express-News
Bexar County Elections Department uses electronic voting machines. Early voting has started for the March 6 primary election.
Bexar County Elections Department uses electronic voting machines….
AUSTIN — Texas election officials testified Thursday they are confident the state’s voting systems are secure, as concerns mount over potential Russian interference with the 2018 midterm elections.
Early voting is already underway for the state’s March 6 primary, the first statewide election in the U.S. to be held this election cycle.
The secretary of state’s office has increased security measures since the 2016 presidential election, when federal officials say Russia-linked hackers targeted Texas and 20 other states. But the office’s elections division director offered few specifics about any changes during a Senate public hearing on election security.
“We are not standing in place waiting to be hacked,” said Keith Ingram, director of the Elections Division at the secretary of state’s office. “We are taking measures that we deem to be reasonable and necessary to make sure personally identifiable information of Texas voters stays safe.”
The biggest problem facing this year’s elections is a lack of volunteer poll workers, who check in voters and work the electronic ballot equipment, local election officials testified. It’s hard to recruit working-age people, who must take time off to log 12-hour days at the polling location on election day, said Chambers County Clerk Heather Hawthorne.
“We are in a dire shortage across the state … people are just not interested,” she said. “It’s really critical.”
Hawthorne and John Oldham, elections administrator in Fort Bend County, said polling systems are secure.
While some counties still use paper ballots, many rely on electronic voting systems. Those aren’t connected to the internet, Oldham said. If hackers target voter registration poll books, counties are supposed to have a paper backup.
“These things are prepared in advance of the election, not on election day,” Oldham said during the daylong hearing before the Senate Select Committee on Election Security.
In Bexar County, the voter database is on a dedicated computer server and the polling units aren’t connected to the internet or each other, Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacquelyn Callanen said.
“We feel very, very secure in what we have,” she said by phone.
The Senate hearing comes as federal intelligence officials have warned that Russia will attempt to meddle in the 2018 election cycle.
In the lead-up to the 2016 election, Russian cyber actors probed Texas state agency websites searching for vulnerabilities but never broke in, state records have shown. The agencies were the Department of Public Safety and the Texas Library and State Archives Commission.
“We at the state level, along with county election officials, take any and all threats seriously,” Ingram said.
Texas is working with federal officials to identify potential cyberthreats quickly, he said. The state will get pinged if the statewide voter database is subject to any malicious activity. Two people within the secretary of state’s office have been designated to get federal security clearance for election-related communications.
Allie Morris is a San Antonio Express-News staff writer. | firstname.lastname@example.org | @MorrisReports