Software bugs could compromise midterm votes in Texas

It doesn't take a hacker to mess with voting machines. Sometimes the problem comes from within.

Laura Hautala Former Senior Writer
Laura wrote about e-commerce and Amazon, and she occasionally covered cool science topics. Previously, she broke down cybersecurity and privacy issues for CNET readers. Laura is based in Tacoma, Washington, and was into sourdough before the pandemic.
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Laura Hautala
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USA - Midterm Elections - Texas - Electronic Voting Demonstration

An election trainer demonstrates the Hart Intercivic E-Slate electronic voting machines used in many Texas counties.

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A software flaw can be just as damaging to the voting process as a hacker.

That much is clear in Texas, where some early voters have claimed that machines are changing their votes in the midterm election. Keith Ingram, the Texas Director of Elections, said in an advisory that the problem is happening because voters are jumping the gun. The issue crops up if a voter selects the "straight party ticket" option, and then keeps pressing buttons before the page finishes loading on the screen, he said.

"As a reminder, voters should always carefully check their review screen before casting their ballots," Ingram said.

The complaints show that even though much of the public debate about voting machines has focused on whether they could be hacked, crummy software has the potential to undermine US elections as well. It's a problem for two reasons. First, it's nearly impossible to quickly patch bugs in voting machines when they appear this close to an election, experts said. And second, sometimes elections officials don't fix issues that they've known about for years. In the case of the machines used in Texas, voters have complained about the machines "flipping" their votes since 2008.

Electronic voting machine experts should expand their focus beyond looking for the kinds of flaws a hacker could exploit, and start looking for flaws that just make machines malfunction, said voting machine security expert Dan Wallach, a computer science professor at Rice University. "I would say that a decade ago we put a lot of focus on security bugs" he said. "Glitches have never received the same degree of attention."

If Texas election officials are right about what's causing the votes to change, Wallach said, the problem isn't with voters moving too quickly. Instead, it's a flaw in the software that needs fixing. 

"It should not be possible simply by voter impatience for the machine to flip the vote," Wallach said. 

A spokesman for the Texas Secretary of State didn't respond to a request for comment on the possibility of an investigation of the problem.  In his advisory to voters, the Texas Director of Elections included instructions explaining how to use the machines. 

Voters' complaints also showcase one more reason why paper ballots need to play a starring role in the voting process, said Marian Schneider, president of voting integrity advocacy group Verified Voting. 

"It just causes a lot of doubt in the voting systems, and it underscores why they need to be replaced," Schneider said.

Watch this: Election hacking: What you need to know

For now, any machine that does malfunction should be taken out of service to be inspected, and voters should be provided with paper ballots in the meantime at that precinct -- enough paper ballots to last for "several hours of voting" if necessary, Schneider said.

Wallach, who has studied voting machine security for more than a decade, also said he would need to see a video of what voters are experiencing before he can make a judgment on the problem. We can't know for sure whether the problem stems from voters continuing to press buttons, or whether they're just mistaken and didn't cast their votes the way they meant to. 

Wallach knows personally that software glitches are hard to replicate. That's because he also votes in Texas on the same voting machines that other voters have complained about, and tried to recreate the problem. He pressed the machine's enter button and spun the dial while his ballot was loading. Nothing happened. 

He also helped review the code that runs the machines -- in 2007. At the time, he was tasked by the state of California to look for security flaws. Now, Wallach said he wishes he could look again to find the flaw that could be causing the problems voters are flagging. 

"Right now we only have a bunch of hypotheses," he said.

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