Hidalgo County working on strengthening election security

EDINBURG — Hidalgo County is working with federal and state authorities to ensure its voting system is less vulnerable to cyber attacks.

“I would like this court to know that during this very sensitive and difficult time of security concerns, please know that we are working diligently toward making sure that we are putting in preventative measures in place with regards not just to our voting equipment, but also our building,” Elections Administrator Yvonne Ramon told county commissioners last week. “We are all vulnerable — just like our bank accounts, our debit cards, our credit cards, our emails.”

Her department is in the process of installing badge-control access and being stricter with employee passcodes, Ramon said.

“We also need to work with our county IT (department) to be more secure with our networks, our voter database, our emails and websites because we are all vulnerable,” she said, adding that her latest hire is in the process of obtaining a masters in election cybersecurity.

Hidalgo County is also working with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and has acquired membership with two organizations that are also working with federal officials to secure elections.

Elections Infrastructure Information Sharing and Analysis Center is one of those organizations. Through it, election agencies have access to a cyber defense suite and tools for implementing security best practices, according to information on its website.

The other organization the county partnered with is the Multi-State Information Sharing & Analysis Center, whose mission is to improve the overall cybersecurity posture of the nation’s state, local, tribal and territorial governments through focused cyber threat prevention, protection, response and recovery.

Election security once again made headlines last week when an 11-year-old boy managed to hack into the Florida state website and changed election results during DEFCON, the world’s largest hacking convention held in Las Vegas.

“Keep in mind it’s the Florida State website, not the voting equipment,” Ramon said. “So it’s not just voting equipment because voting equipment can not be hacked into via any type of modem because they’re not set up that way. They would literally have to open up every single machine to install hardware and software that would make it vulnerable.”

The Texas Secretary of State’s Office was recently awarded $24 million from the federal government to help thwart potential attacks. The money, however, is not meant to help local government entities, like Hidalgo County, purchase new voting machines, like many thought it would when the county purchased new ones last year.

“So thank you for listening to me when I told you there would be no money to buy new equipment,” Ramon told commissioners. “They are going to use this toward security measures, so they will pay any entity that this county decides to hire to come and audit and to help us secure our infrastructure.”

nlopez@themonitor.com