Dallas County's Labyrinth of a Computer System Fends Off Russian Hackers

What kind of person could not break into the Dallas County voting system?
What kind of person could not break into the Dallas County voting system? Roman Sigaez Shutterstock
Shocking news, shocking, unbelievably shocking that the Russians tried 17 times to hack the Dallas County election system before last year’s presidential election. More shocking, possibly even earth-shaking: They did not succeed.

In years covering vote fraud issues in Dallas, I have known drunken homeless people who could hack local elections here, though perhaps not by computer. In fact, I will go a step further. In my years of covering vote fraud in Dallas, I have never known a single person who could not hack our local election system if he wanted to.

Homeland Security informed Dallas County elections director Toni Pippins-Poole that Russian hackers tried and failed 17 times to break into the county’s election system. She was probably worried initially that she might be in trouble for being inhospitable. We’ve always had kind of an open-door policy.

So stunning is it, in fact, that Russian hackers were unable to infiltrate the local voting system, I have been wondering if we might be on to something in Dallas. Is it possible we hold the secret? Maybe we are the anti-New York of voting: If you can’t get in here, you can’t get in anywhere.

Should the federal government send election experts here to study us? Perhaps there are aspects of our system that could be replicated, modified and scaled up to protect voting in the entire nation, in Western Europe, India, Australia, wherever democratic elections are held.

So I have had my thinking cap on about this. If they ask us what it is that makes our particular computer system impervious to the insidiously clever Russian hackers, where might we steer them? And I have a first thought.

One of the things I have learned from studying the Dallas County voting system is that it’s all about computers now. The voting is on computers; the vote counting is on computers; the voter lists are on computers. So selecting the right computer system is really important, and that’s one of the first suggestions I would make to any visiting federal expert who wanted to talk to me.

The way to select a computer system that Russians will never be able to figure out is to put all information technology purchasing authority for the county, including the elections department, into the hands of one very powerful county commissioner — and then let him hire his church choir director to do it. Now listen to me. I’m not trying to be funny. The point is that your computer system will be less vulnerable to hackers the less sense it makes.

Our experience here is that a computer system assembled by the church choir director of a powerful county commissioner will never make any sense to anyone, not even the choir director. The Russians could torture him, and he wouldn’t be able to explain it. See where we’re headed? I told you. We have our ways.

Let’s say the commissioner — we’ll give him the code name “Our Man Downtown” — changes churches. So what? Even better. This system has got so many firewalls it’s foolproof.

He ditches the choir director who used to be the head of IT. What happens next? He gets a new choir director. That guy becomes the new head of IT. He buys a new computer system.

When he goes on Amazon and buys a whole new computer system for the county, what happens to the old one? Nothing. We keep the old one. We just hook the old one up to the new one.

I spend a lot of time on the Dallas County computer system. I use it to do everything from covering trials to fooling them into letting people out of jail. That one I just do for fun. I could take you on a tour of the system if you really wanted me to. It’s a bit of labyrinth, which is also half the fun.

A tour of the Dallas County computer system is a tour of global computer history. At the front door, we will encounter a lot of fairly recent software and hardware — equipment with a lot of chrome and colors like soft pink, reminding us of things we think we may have seen for sale at those huge expressway gas stations.

Not too much deeper into our spelunking tour, we will run into prompts written in alphabets that I believe are called kanji, hanja and something like chu nom. Lots of different ones. When I run into things in the county computer system that I cannot possibly be expected to read, I employ a trick I once saw a 6-year-old use at my house when he was playing a computer game with my son: I lean forward and mash both of my forearms down on the keyboard. Something always happens. I go from there.

The really satisfying part for me is when I work my way into a strange noir realm that only people my age know about called DOS. DOS, which stands for disk operating system, which means nothing now, was the original computer system that really old people used in the really olden days. There are very few places in the world where you can actually find your way into a working version of DOS, and Dallas County is one of them.

Why is that? Well, remember what I said about the choir directors and how they just sort of hook the new ones up to the old ones? It’s like that song, “Dem Bones” (“Toe bone connected to the foot bone, foot bone connected to the heel bone”). If the song were about the Dallas County computer system, it would be “DOS bone connected to the Scope bone, Scope bone connected to the PLATO bone, PLATO bone connected to the Atari bone, now hear the word of the Lord!”

Jose Barrientos is a person of interest in Dallas County vote hacking probe.
Stephen Young
At this point, you would be justified in wondering how I can get any work done on the county’s computers. I will tell you. And I think it may be another of our big local anti-hacking secrets. I bring sandwiches, slices of pie, candy bars and soft drinks in for the people who work at the county. You cannot do this work without food bribes.

The people who work at the county normally do not even have faces. They have this way of sitting sort of humped and round-shouldered over their desks with their backs to you, so that you can’t see faces at all. The only way to get them to turn around is to rattle food packaging.

They are amazing. If one agrees to help you find something on a county computer, it’s like watching a sorcerer in tall, pointed hat turning a toad into a beautiful ophthalmologist. They walk around the computer and do these little shakes, these taps, slaps and pokes, and then they sit down and start pecking away. They have this odd kind of humming they do out of the sides of their mouths while they peck. But the next thing you know, there you are: The file you have been searching for all morning is waiting for you on the screen.

I used to say, “Could you show me how to do that, so I can do it myself without bothering you the next time I’m here?” But they scuttled back to their desks and hunched over their keyboards again, so I couldn’t see their faces. So I don’t ask that any more. I just rattle the food.

So there is one important aspect of the Dallas voting system for federal experts to explore: Voting here is based on a completely irrational, corrupt, insanely illogical computer system that not even the most brilliant Russian hacker could make sense of because there no sense is there to be made. And food bribes.

But wait. I said at the top that anybody could break in. Well then, what stopped the Russians? I’m a little worried. This is starting to get into some very proprietary information about my county, and I wonder if some of this information is supposed to be classified or something. Oh, heck, I’ll just go ahead and tell you.

Nobody votes. A comprehensive study from Portland State University in Oregon this year found that Dallas had the lowest voter turnout of the nation’s 30 biggest cities — around 6 percent in municipal elections. Pretty much the only people who vote are the ones who can use DOS.

Pippins-Poole, our elections director, explained the low turnout to a reporter: “There’s a lot of candidates on the ballot, and there’s not a lot of name recognition. When you want to get somebody out to vote, to pique their interest, there has to be something there emotionally for them.”

Meaning there’s not.

Plus, nobody’s in charge. In the last city election, a supposedly neutral election judge was haranguing voters at the polls about which candidate to vote for, which is highly illegal. Pippins-Poole, the director, sent an investigator, who confirmed it. But Pippins-Poole said she couldn’t do anything about it because she wasn’t in charge. And she’s in charge. So there you have it.

Here is what I think happened with the Russians. They probably did get in. Immediately. But they had no idea where they were. They got into the system right away, but they found no voter lists, no voters, no ballots. Nothing. They typed “county election system.” A prompt said “?????.” They went home.

Aha! They brought no candy bars! Fools!

Why did Homeland Security say the Russians didn’t get in? Let me tell you something about Homeland Security. Homeland Security doesn’t know jack about our county computer system in Dallas. Jack doesn’t know jack. Nobody knows. That’s our secret.

The smarter your system is, the more vulnerable it is to smart people. We’re safe because we’ve gone so far in the opposite direction. I know that doesn’t make any sense. That’s the beauty of it.
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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze