Across the country, voter registration deadlines began this week. Texas has already seen an all-time high of registrations ahead of Tuesday's deadline to register. That's despite the fact that the state announced recently that thousands of voters who registered online through Vote.org may not have officially registered. This is because Texas does not offer online voter registration. So when all those potential voters show up to vote in November, how confident can they be that their vote will count?
Short answer: Very. Long answer: While experts feel the voting process itself is secure, they have concerns about the protection of voter rights, accessibility of the vote and the risk for misinformation, particularly from foreign sources looking to sway election results, which they say has not been adequately addressed.
"Texas voters can vote with confidence that their vote is going to be counted the way they cast it," said Keith Ingram, director of the Texas secretary of state’s elections division, at a recent panel discussion hosted by the Texas Tribune. "There are other ways that are easier for people to influence the outcome.”
In addition to a secure election day, Ingram said that since 2016 the state increased security for its voter registration system, adding two-step verification and monitoring traffic to the database, among other changes. "We have confidence that our voter registration system has not been breached," he said.
Counties are still precautions, according to Dana DeBeauvoir, longtime Travis County clerk. Internet-connected databases are vulnerable to attack, she explained, even if it's as simple as making the system inaccessible on election day with repeated attacks. "What we try to do at the county level is have backup system after backup system to make sure voters get taken care of even if we lose connectivity," said DeBeauvoir.
So where are the vulnerabilities? Misinformation and attacks, even if unsuccessful. "It doesn’t really matter if a bad actor has actually traveled along a pathway and hacked your data," explained DeBeauvoir. "What matters is that people think it happened," she said, because it undermines confidence in the election process itself.
Of course, there are other ways to undermine an election. "Denial of service, robocalls," said John Dickson, principal at Denim Group who advises business and government officials on cybersecurity. "There are so many cheap and easy things to do that are not involving some of the infrastructures that could totally undermine that.” Facebook and Twitter, for example, have had to reckon with disinformation campaigns on their platforms conducted by Russian government actors during the 2016 campaign and beyond.
It's this area that experts are most concerned about. "They need to spend money to fix this," said Dickson of the current federal government's relative inaction on curbing misinformation. By contrast, experts argue that spending money on voting machines or targeting voter fraud is ill-advised.
"I just haven’t seen this so-called fraud," said DeBeauvoir, "I wish we would stop wasting our time talking about that piece of it.”
Despite that, the State of Texas has begun a new effort expected to launch late 2018 or early 2019 that will kick voters off the rolls if they're also registered in the state's driver's licenses rolls as non-citizens. With roughly a year's worth of work on the effort already, Ingram admitted the state wasn't actually sure whether there would be much overlap. "We don't know for sure," he said on whether there are non-citizens registered to vote in Texas.
"It seems overblown to me," said Joshua Geltzer, executive director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University, about voter fraud concerns, including the president's own insistence that there was widespread fraud during the 2016 election. "The idea that people here are trying to cast ballots fraudulently seems to be overblown," he said. It seemed particularly unlikely that non-citizens were voting illegally, Geltzer said. "The idea that they would risk all of that to show up and cast one vote, when one vote so rarely determines the outcome of an election, strikes me as extremely unlikely," he said.
As DeBeauvoir put it: "Texas doesn’t have a voting problem…it has a not voting problem.”
In addition to taking steps to boost confidence in the elections, experts argue that more is needed to protect access to the vote itself. "We’ve upped polling places and numbers and everything we can think of," said DeBeauvoir of Travis County efforts to make election day easier for voters.
The 2016 election was the first national election without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act and more than a dozen states added additional voting restrictions. Ari Berman, author of "Give Us The Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America," called it "the biggest under-covered scandal of the 2016 campaign."
Texas, along with states like Arizona, Florida and Georgia, has one of the earlier voter registration deadlines. In Vermont, by contrast, voters can register as late as election day. The Texas Civil Rights Project also found that, despite legal requirements to help assist eligible high school students in voter registration, many schools fail to do so.
Online voting, meanwhile, has an uncertain future."There is not internet voting today that has a pathway that can be secured," said DeBeauvoir. Arguing that banks and other institutions have found ways to make online transactions more secure, Dickson said there are steps that could make online voting more secure but that those additional hurdles might turn off voters.
Call to Action
If you have yet to register to vote, you're running out of time. Tuesday, October, 9, is Texas' deadline to register. For more information or to check if you're registered, click here. If you're outside of Texas, get more information on how to register to vote here.