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July 31st, 2019:

No SOS

Just in case you were wondering.

Just as they do every year, hundreds of county officials from all over Texas are packing a hotel ballroom in Austin this week for three days of all things elections.

On the agenda are a session on paying for primary elections and one on procedures for voting by mail. A half-hour is reserved for policy updates from the legislative session that wrapped up in late May.

The annual seminar was originally supposed to begin with a welcome from the secretary of state, Texas’ chief election official. But with county workers gathered around dozens of round tables, this year’s confab kicked off with a deputy; the secretary of state position has been vacant since late May, when David Whitley lost his job over a botched review of the voter rolls.

It’s been 63 days since Democratic senators blocked Whitley’s confirmation and cut his tenure short. The Texas Constitution states the governor shall “without delay” make another nomination to fill the vacant post. Gov. Greg Abbott’s office did not respond to questions about why the post has remained vacant for so long and whether there was a timeline in place to name a replacement.

[…]

Some county officials are looking to new leadership as a reset. But there was little mention of the vacancy at the top of the secretary of state’s office or of the state’s errors on Monday morning. Instead, Keith Ingram, the state’s director of elections, informed county workers that the secretary of state’s office would be moving forward with a revised effort to review the voter rolls for noncitizens.

Pointing to the settlement in the litigation from earlier this year, Ingram said the state would be rolling out lists of registered voters who visited the Department of Public Safety and indicated they were not citizens in the last week. Those weekly review efforts could begin as soon as next month.

“We’re currently testing the data with DPS to make sure we don’t run into more problems,” Ingram said.

Election security was top of mind at the state’s seminar, which Ingram opened by noting that the election process — and the need to enforce security measures — was on “display like never before” following Russian interference in the 2016 election and fears about foreign intrusion during the 2020 cycle.

But with no secretary of state, Texas won’t have its top elections official at an all-day training by the Department of Homeland Security on securing elections. This week’s seminar is the only time this many local election officials will all be in the same room discussing election procedures and security ahead of the 2020 election cycle.

“There’s never a good time for them to have that vacancy at the top,” [Chris Davis, president of the Texas Association of Election Administrators] said. “But this really isn’t a good time.”

That sure is some sweet, sweet leadership from Greg Abbott, who as the story notes filled the previous vacancy with Whitley a mere 17 days after the job opened up. It’s not like I have any faith in Abbott’s ability to pick a new SOS, but we ought to have someone who is accountable for election security in 2020. But Abbott’s donors don’t care about this, so then neither does he.

Commissioners Court approves bail lawsuit settlement

Excellent.

Harris County Commissioners Court approved a historic settlement Tuesday fixing a bail system a federal judge found unconstitutional and ushering in a new era for criminal justice in one of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas.

The deal resulted from months of intensive negotiations between the county and lawyers for indigent misdemeanor defendants who sued over a two-tiered system that jailed people prior to trial if they couldn’t pay up front cash bail but allowed people with similar backgrounds and charges to resume their lives and await trial at home.

“This was the result of careful negotiation,” County Judge Lina Hidalgo said just before the commissioner’s voted 3-2 to approve the deal.

The vote split along party lines. Commissioners Jack Cagle and Steve Radack, the only Republicans now on the the commissioners court, voted against it.

The settlement agreement — which still must be approved by a federal judge — installs a monitor to oversee the new bail protocol for seven years. It provides comprehensive public defense services and safeguards to help ensure defendants show up for court. It will allow about 85 percent of people arrested on misdemeanors to avoid pretrial detention. The settlement also calls for transparent data collection, which will allow the county to keep better track of what’s working and what isn’t.

You know the background, so see here for the previous update. I can only wonder what would have happened in a world where Democrats swept the judicial races but failed to win those two seats on Commissioners Court. I feel pretty confident saying that as of July 30 in that alternate universe, there would not be an agreement in place. Elections, they do have consequences. Congratulations one and all for getting this done.

An update on election security

Nothing to see here.

Russian hackers probed election systems in all 50 states, a new Senate report confirmed Thursday.

The report comes one day after former special counsel Robert Mueller told Congress that the Russian government is working to meddle in U.S. elections “as we sit here.”

“It wasn’t a single attempt,” Mueller said Wednesday of Russia’s 2016 election interference. “They’re doing it as we sit here. And they expect to do it during the next campaign.”

The bipartisan report by the Senate Intelligence Committee released Thursday confirmed previous comments by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that Russian hackers scanned election systems in all 50 states ahead of the 2016 presidential election. DHS initially acknowledged Russian attempts to hack into election systems in just 21 states.

[…]

Democrats used Mueller’s testimony Wednesday as the backdrop to bring a trio of election security bills to the Senate floor, but Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS) blocked each one in succession.

Two of the measures, one by Warner and the other by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), would require campaigns to report offers of foreign support. The third, by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), would have allowed the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms to help secure personal electronic devices belonging to senators and their staff.

Hyde-Smith has not said why she blocked the measures, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), has long opposed bringing election-security measures up for vote. Last year, for example, Senate Rules and Administration Committee Chair Roy Blunt (R-MO) accused McConnell of blocking another election security bill, explaining that McConnell believed the issue “reaches no conclusion.”

“[McConnell] has a long history of opposing election reform,” Wyden told ThinkProgress earlier this year. “And he’s got people in his caucus who’ll do a lot of the heavy lifting for him.”

Remain calm, all is well.

Senate Intel Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC), and Vice Chair Mark Warner (D-Va.) each issued statements with the report’s release. Burr said that in 2016, the United States was “unprepared at all levels of government” for attacks on election infrastructure, and has improved in the time since. Burr noted that the Department of Homeland Security and state election officials have a much better working relationship than before, but that “still much work remains to be done.”

It’s unclear whether Burr considers federal elections security legislation as part of the work that remains to be done. Mitch McConnell, Burr’s Republican colleague and the Senate majority leader, has prevented most of this type of legislation from coming to the Senate floor, arguing that Congress has done enough and that pending election security legislation is merely the Democrats’ effort to usurp states’ rights and bolster their chances at the polls.

Warner, who a day ago was part of a group of Congressional Democrats that blasted McConnell for holding up election security legislation, alluded to the need to get past the partisan gridlock. “I hope the bipartisan findings and recommendations outlined in this report will underscore to the White House and all of our colleagues, regardless of political party, that this threat remains urgent, and we have a responsibility to defend our democracy against it,” he said in a statement.

The report notes that the Russian operation dates back to “at least 2014.” It reveals that state and local officials, who are mostly in charge of running elections, “were not sufficiently warned or prepared to handle an attack from a hostile nation-state actor,” and that officials at all levels of the government debated whether to publicly acknowledge what was happening, with some concerned that disclosing it “might promote the very impression they were trying to dispel—that the voting systems were insecure.” At the time, McConnell took an active role in preventing further public disclosure of the Russian operation, theWashington Post reported in December 2016.

Go about your business.

Hacking individual voting machines would be an inefficient way to throw an election. But J. Alex Halderman, a computer scientist who has tested vulnerabilities for more than a decade, testified to the Senate committee that he and his team “created attacks that can spread from machine to machine, like a computer virus, and silently change election outcomes.” They studied touch-screen and optical-scan systems, and “in every single case,” he said, “we found ways for attackers to sabotage machines and steal votes.”

Another way to throw an election might be to attack systems that manage voter-registration lists, which the hackers also did in some states. Remove people from the lists—focusing on areas dominated by members of the party that the hacker wants to lose—and they won’t be able to vote.

One former senior intelligence official told me, “If I was going to hack such a system, I’d leave the records alone and corrupt the tally software”—the programs that count the votes and transmit results to a central headquarters. The transmission is done through a network, which is vulnerable to hackers. Some data are transmitted from the voting machines via USB ports, which are also easy to hack.

In the past decade, many states have installed voting machines with paper backups. (One of the measures blocked in the Senate this week would have required them.) But the Senate report notes that 19 states do not conduct complete postelection audits to compare these ballots to the electronic results; five of them do not audit at all. Paper backups mean little if nobody looks at them.

Computerized voting might be inherently vulnerable. Matt Blaze, who holds the McDevitt Chair of Computer Science at Georgetown Law, said at a hacking conference in Washington earlier this year, “Voting security is by far the hardest problem I have ever encountered.”

That last link does have a proposed solution, if you’re not too depressed to read it. But as with most things in this life, if we want to make progress on fixing the problem, we have to first solve the Mitch McConnell problem.