Revelations that Russian hackers tried to break into Dallas County’s web servers, likely with the intention of accessing voter registration files, in the lead up to last November’s election renewed concerns about Texas election security. Both Wednesday night’s news out of Dallas and a Bloomberg report on Monday—which said that the Russian hacking attempts affected 39 states—are forcing states to look inward and re-examine the security of their local and state-level electoral technologies. The particular targets of Russian hackers were the accounts of elections officials and voter registration rolls, which are connected to the internet and are unlike the voting systems that actually do the recording and vote tallying. But a possible security breach of one area of electoral technologies has the potential to ripple out and affect the integrity of other ones. “The reason why this whole Russian hacking thing is a wake-up call is because we’ve been caught not paying as much attention as we should have in an area that all of us didn’t think was that vulnerable,” Dana DeBeauvoir, the Travis County clerk since 1987, says. “And yet it has turned out to be extremely vulnerable in ways we did not expect.”
DeBeauvoir’s office, however, is on the cusp of a new approach that could reinvent electoral technology security within Texas and across the United States. DeBeauvoir is one of the key figures that has been working on STAR-Vote (Secure, Transparent, Auditable, and Reliable), an end-to-end encrypted electronic voting system. The Travis County Clerk’s office, the Texas elections office, Rice University professors Dan S. Wallach and Michael D. Byrne, and other academics came together to create the system, which encrypts votes cast and stores them in a database. This anonymized database is then made available to third parties, such as local governments, journalists, non-profits, and even the voters themselves and allows them to audit and verify votes. As DeBeauvoir puts it, STAR-Vote ensures that “the voter’s vote is cast as intended and counted as cast.”
DeBeauvoir’s work with the technology dates back almost twelve years. Along with similar initiatives such as Los Angeles County’s Voting Systems Assessment Project, San Francisco’s efforts to create an open source voting project, and the Colorado Risk-Limiting Audit Project, STAR-Vote could mean that the problems with electoral security are close to being answered.