Protesters Picket Outside Sen. John Cornyn’s Office, Demand Election Security

Zen Biasco, dressed as the Statue of Liberty, grabs the attention of passing motorists in front of Sen. John Cornyn's offices.
Zen Biasco, dressed as the Statue of Liberty, grabs the attention of passing motorists in front of Sen. John Cornyn's offices. Lucas Manfield

A dozen or so people gathered outside Sen. John Cornyn’s North Dallas offices Tuesday morning, urging the senator to support additional funding for election security.

There were impromptu chants, cardboard signs — "Honk for Clean Elections” — and a man dressed as the Statue of Liberty whose headpiece kept flying off in the wind.

“It’s ridiculous that we even have to do this,” said David Jones, president of Clean Elections Texas, one of the organizers of the protest. “It’s just basic good government."

Jones is one of many advocates, scientists and politicians who have called for additional cybersecurity measures in the wake of Russian interference in the 2016 election. But Republicans like Cornyn have pushed back, citing a desire to limit federal interference in how states run elections.

The gathering was one of at least 40 across the country, part of a campaign by Public Citizen, a left-leaning national advocacy group, to push lawmakers to support additional measures to improve election security.

“We wanted to show that this is an issue that people of all political stripes and all parts of the country care about,” said Jonah Minkoff-Zern, co-director of the initiative at Public Citizen.

Election security has become a hot-button issue in the wake of the 2016 election. The Department of Homeland Security later said that Russian hackers targeted election systems in 21 states.

Special counsel Robert Mueller highlighted the urgency of the situation in a hearing before congress earlier this year. “They're doing it as we sit here, and they expect to do it during the next campaign,” he said, referring to Russian operatives who have managed to compromise systems across the country.

“We wanted to show that this is an issue that people of all political stripes and all parts of the country care about." — Jonah Minkoff-Zern

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In June, the House responded by passing a sweeping election security bill that earmarked $600 million for states to invest in beefing up their election security. But the effort stalled in the Senate after being blocked by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Cornyn supported the move, tweeting on Monday that “this issue shouldn’t be a Trojan Horse for a federal takeover of state and local elections.”

“Election security is of utmost importance to our democracy, and we must ensure election authorities have the proper tools and resources to protect Texans’ votes,” read a statement released by his office that cited his support of a federal fund that has already given more than $23 million to Texas. The state has used much of this money to offer cybersecurity training to local officials.

But Diana Jones, a co-organizer of the rally, said this isn’t enough. “Small rural areas are really struggling to have the money and the expertise to upgrade their systems,” she said.

Some counties in Texas continue to use paperless electronic voting machines, which cybersecurity experts have criticized because they're difficult, if not impossible, to audit. Taylor County purchased new voting machines without a paper backup earlier this year.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine has issued a report saying that such machines should be phased out “as soon as possible.” Texas is one of only 12 states that have not done so, according to a report released by the Brennan Center.

The problem is bigger than just machines, explains Dan Wallach, a computer scientist at Rice University who has studied the issue.

"We have to worry about voter registration systems, we have to worry about vote tabulations systems, we have to worry about election night reporting," Wallach says. "All of that stuff is potentially in game if you're a nation state adversary."

Wallach is dumbfounded that Senate leaders are dragging their feet.

It is not clear whether Texas was one of the states compromised by Russian hackers. In early 2018, NBC News reported that it was, citing three senior intelligence officials. But the Texas Secretary of State quickly denied it.

The state was subsequently named one of the 18 most vulnerable states in a report released by congressional Democrats, highlighting the states’ continued use of insecure machines.

Texans are fed up. A poll conducted by The Texas Lyceum found widespread support from both sides of the aisle for requiring voting machines to include a paper backup.

But the Texas Legislature hasn’t heeded the call. Language requiring such a paper backup was included and then dropped from a state election reform bill earlier this year.

For its part, Dallas County spent $30 million earlier this year upgrading its voting machines. They’ll have a paper trail, and they’ll be ready by November.

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Lucas Manfield is an editorial fellow at the Observer. He's a former software developer and a recent graduate of Columbia Journalism School.
Contact: Lucas Manfield