Denton County returns to paper ballots

I hadn’t realized this.

Denton has been using a hybrid voting system that employs both electronic and paper ballots for about a decade. But county officials recently approved spending just shy of $9 million to buy new voting equipment from Austin-based Hart InterCivic that will return to an entirely paper-based system in time for this year’s November elections. Even disabled voters, who will cast their votes on touch-screen machines, will have their ballots printed out and tallied through a print scanner.

The move comes months after a disastrous election day for Denton County in November, with machines inadvertently set to “test mode” instead of “election mode,” long lines, problems with scanning paper ballots, and, ultimately, incorrect tabulations. [Frank Phillips, Denton County’s elections administrator] — who was working in nearby Tarrant County at the time — said it was the personnel, not the machines, that caused chaos last fall. But voters in town, as well as leaders with the local Democratic and Republican parties, called for a return to paper ballots in the months following election day.

“The question always comes: ‘How do I know that when I cast my ballot it’s recorded electronically?’” Phillips said. “We know it’s recorded correctly because of our testing methods, but that question has persisted ever since we started using electronic voting. With the political climate these days, it’s even more heightened right now.”

And these aren’t just any paper ballots, Phillips emphasized. The new Hart system Denton purchased allows election administrators to print ballots on demand, eliminating the waste and cost of over-printing paper ballots in advance of an election and then having to expend resources storing those unused ballots afterward to comply with state regulations. It also prevents the problem of under-printing paper ballots — an issue that emerged last year when Titus County saw a higher-than-expected turnout for the presidential primary, and officials were forced to create and hand-count ballots on election day.

I gather what this means is that when you show up, you will get a printed-for-you ballot, then (I presume) fill it out with a pen or pencil. It will then be read by an optical scanner to tally the votes. Which is fine, but it’s not the way I’d prefer it. The system they have for disabled voters, where you vote on a touch screen then have your ballot printed out, would be better. Frankly, having the vote recorded electronically then having a paper ballot that serves as your receipt is better still. This is basically what the STAR voter system that Travis County has been working on does.

The main problem with filling out a paper ballot is that some people will fill it out incorrectly. Have you ever looked at the election returns on the Harris County Clerk website and wondered how there could possibly be overvotes in a race? It happens with the paper-based absentee ballots, where one can accidentally or purposefully select more than one candidate in a contest. Electronic voting machines don’t allow for this to happen. While this will almost always spoil a ballot for that race, some of the time with these overvotes, the voter’s intent is clear. In the infamous 2000 Florida election, some counties used a paper ballot with optical scan system, and there were documented instances of a person filling in the bubble for a specific candidate, then also putting that same candidate’s name in the write-in space. This is hardly an insurmountable problem, but it would help to have clear policies in place for when a ballot is truly spoiled and when a voter’s intent can be inferred.

There are other potential issues here – do we have any idea if it will take people longer to vote on paper than on a screen, for instance – but again, I don’t think they’re insurmountable. I don’t care for the fearfulness behind the “how do I know that when I cast my ballot it’s recorded electronically?” premise – the same way you know that when you buy something from Amazon it will arrive on your doorstep and your credit card will get charged – but whatever. If this is what the people of Denton County want, then so be it. The Lewisville Texan has more.

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5 Responses to Denton County returns to paper ballots

  1. Mainstream says:

    The problem with a system which electronically records the vote, then prints out a ballot for the voter is this: the voter loses privacy. A spouse, the person who drove him to the polls, a union official, an employer is going to demand to see how he voted. In an extreme case, the voter could trade proof of how he voted for payment.

  2. voter_worker says:

    Mainstream, a machine-printed ballot print-out would be deposited in a ballot box at the polling place, assuring privacy. A receipt, on the other hand, would be susceptible to the situations you mention. I hope this will be an issue in next year’s County Clerk election.

  3. General Grant says:

    Receipts kill the secret ballot and open the way to outright buying votes. Will never happen.

    A certain amount of people are going to screw up their ballots. That’s just life. With 6,000 races on the ballot, a lot of people have no idea what they are doing anyway. Some screw ups are undervotes or voting for the wrong person, too, UK uses paper ballots, they don’t seem to have any of these problems, and the votes are counted, with finality, by dawn. Yes, a few votes are spoilt. This is one issue that shouldn’t be nearly as problematic as we make it.

    That said I have no problems with a system that allows for a manual inspection to try to divine clear voter intent if a race is close enough for it to matter. Someone voting for a candidate and then writing in the same person may be a moron, but that vote should count.

  4. Kris Overstreet says:

    ” I don’t care for the fearfulness behind the “how do I know that when I cast my ballot it’s recorded electronically?” premise – the same way you know that when you buy something from Amazon it will arrive on your doorstep and your credit card will get charged.”

    This is possibly the most stupid thing I’ve read this month.

    When you order from Amazon you get a receipt. You get a listing on your credit card statement. Amazon keeps a record of your order that can be referred to if something goes wrong. There are multiple methods to prove what you purchased and to redress injury.

    With an electronic vote, there is NO POSSIBLE WAY to prove your vote was counted properly. None. You can’t point to a particular set of ones and zeroes and say, “That’s my vote.” You can’t even prove that the results that came out of a voting machine bear any resemblance to the input the machine received. There’s no possible independent audit, because the systems used to test the machines are just as opaque as the machines themselves.

    Every civilized nation except the US (if you want to call us civilized) uses paper ballots- because, for the system’s faults, it’s still the hardest to rig.

  5. Ross says:

    In the UK, there is usually one race on the ballot. That makes counting easy. It’s far harder to count paper ballots with 50 races.

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