An interesting feud that could have national political implications has erupted between two Texas women–Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman, a Democrat, and Texas Secretary of State Ruth Rugerro Hughs, a Republican. At issue is a last minute advisory Secretary of State Hughs’ office handed County Clerk Trautman on how to handle votes cast during the Houston Mayoral race that according to Trautman, resulted in a 12 hour delay in announcing the election results. The 12 hour delay in announcing election results has generated a lot of finger-pointing with Republicans blaming it on Democrat Trautman and Trautman in turn placing the blame squarely on GOP Secretary of State Hughs’ office..
Houston’s Mayoral elections were held on November 5, 2019 and are headed for a December 14, 2019 runoff because no candidate managed to get a majority of the vote(more than 50%). Early voting began on October 21, 2019. On October 23, with early voting already underway, Texas Secretary of State Hughs’ office issued an advisory directing all Texas counties to make copies of election result data before transmitting them electronically. This would ensure that the county had a backup in case hacking was suspected or alleged during electronic transmission of election results.
The problem with this seemingly prudent advisory from Secretary of State Hughs’ office is that it was such a last-minute advisory(issued after early voting commenced) that Harris County officials simply could not abide by it. The county did not have the equipment necessary to make the desired copies and could not get them in time to keep up with the election timetable. Because of this last-minute advisory, County Clerk Diane Trautman made a decision to physically transport all election results to a single point and manually feed them into a single machine thus doing away with the electronic transmission concerns. It is this process of physically transporting election results to a single point and feeding them into a single machine that resulted in the 12-hour delay in announcing election results.
This is the point however that you must not miss. Republicans have been running Harris County elections way before Democrat Diane Trautman came along. Their chosen method of transmitting election results(via modem) has been widely criticized by Houston area Computer Scientists, notably Professor Dan Wallach of Rice University, as being very unsafe and susceptible to hacking. Houston Public Media’s Jen Rice, who wrote a piece about this election feud, spoke to the aforementioned Prof Wallach who told her, “We found that this particular modeming process[used by Republicans] was really not secure….and that has been used unmodified despite our findings for a decade.”
Despite decades-long concerns by Harris county residents, neither Republican Harris county officials nor the Texas Secretary of State have deemed it prudent to institute the election security advisory they suddenly imposed on Democrat Diane Trautman–copying election data before transmitting them electronically. In other words, Texas Secretary of State has known for decades that transmitting election results via modem was not secure and violated Texas election law(which mandates a secure method of transmission), but allowed Republicans to do it anyway. Their concerns about election security have only been stoked now that Democrat Trautman is in charge. Texas election law specifically bans the use of modems during tabulation yet the Texas Secretary of State has allowed Harris County Republicans and possibly other counties to do that anyway, for decades. It is only now that a Democrat is in charge that they are applying the law.
For the record, reasonable people can disagree as to which mode of election data transmission is more secure–the Republican modem or the Democratic Party’s intranet. All reasonable people will agree however that making a copy of election results before transmitting them electronically is a necessity when there are concerns about the security/safety of election data during transmission. The question now confronting Harris county Republicans and the Republican Secretary of State is why for all these years, they have transmitted election results electronically using non-secure modems, without first making a copy of the data? You don’t have to take Yours Truly’s word for it, Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman made the same argument to Houston Public Media’s Jen Rice. Trautman said, “The one that my predecessor used[modems] last November was over a cellular network, which is the internet. So he was violating this 10-year law that the Secretary of State brought up.”
More importantly, Diane Trautman added that the last-minute advisory from Secretary of State Hughs’ office came as a result of political pressure put on her by the Harris County Republican Party and specifically, Harris County GOP Chairman Paul Simpson. This is a very serious allegation which definitely deserves to be investigated further. If Texas Secretary of State Hughs is being unduly influenced by partisan politicians when making decisions about the state’s election procedures, then she needs to resign immediately.
Trautman told Houston Public Media, “I believe it’s common knowledge that the Secretary of State admitted to our County Attorney that the Harris County Republican Party put pressure on the Secretary of State to make this last minute advisory.” Harris County GOP Chair Simpson denied this allegation saying, “The advisory went out before the Republican Party was even involved….To my knowledge, we didn’t ask for any advisory.”
Bottom line folks, there are three crucial questions here that beg for some serious answers. First, why has the Texas Secretary of State allowed Republicans to use modems for election data transmission for decades when Texas election law expressly forbids that? Secondly, why didn’t the Texas Secretary of State impose the “copy before electronically transmitting” rule before Democrat Diane Trautman came along? Thirdly, was the last-minute advisory the result of political pressure from Harris County Republican Party officials? A serious investigation needs to be conducted over this third question and if proven, Secretary of State Hughs must resign.
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