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electronic voting machines

There were still ballots being counted yesterday

I think they’re done now? It’s hard to say for sure from the story.

With more than 1.1 million ballots cast, Harris County on Thursday still was counting ballots from Tuesday’s election.

The county filed a request for an extension Wednesday evening to get more time to complete its preliminary, unofficial count beyond the 24-hour deadline mandated by the Texas Election Code.

The state’s 24-hour rule to complete the Election Day tally is not new, but county officials said this is the first year Harris County is bumping up against the deadline because the county has implemented a paper ballot record, which is now required under state law. The county exceeded the deadline during this year’s March primaries.

[…]

A member of the county’s canvassing authority filed the motion Wednesday to obtain the court order allowing the county more time to process ballots, which a state district judge granted that night.

Leah Shah, a spokesperson for the Harris County Elections Administrator’s office, attributed the delays to the addition of paper ballot records and said the county anticipates it will finish counting by the end of the Thursday.

“When introducing paper voter records into the process we are now accounting not only for the processing of mail ballots, but also the processing of emergency slot ballots,” Shah said.

Emergency slot ballots are paper voter records that were not scanned at the polling location, which could happen for multiple reasons, including paper jams.

The county received 1,099 mail ballots on Election Day, along with 857 emergency slot ballots, according to the county.

All of those paper records had to be processed by the Early Voting Ballot Board before they could be counted. The board is made up of an equal number of representatives appointed by the county’s Republican and Democratic political parties.

There have been four Unofficial Results reports released since Wednesday morning. The date and time are in the files’ names.

CumulativeReport-20221109-04:51, with 1,094,415 total votes, 55,393 mail ballots, and 1,039,022 in person ballots.

CumulativeReport-20221109-08:46, with 1,096,633 total votes, 55,393 mail ballots, and 1,041,240 in person ballots.

CumulativeReport-20221109-17:10, with 1,100,979 total votes, 59,186 mail ballots, and 1,041,793 in person ballots.

CumulativeReport-20221110-14:42, with 1,102,097 total votes, 60,302 mail ballots, and 1,041,795 in person ballots.

As I said, it’s not clear to me if they are done – the Chron story had a publication time of 2:50 PM yesterday, which would correspond with that last updated file, but it also refers to “the end of the day”. I’m drafting this at about 8 PM and haven’t seen anything new, so maybe we’re done pending any provisional ballots. At some point I hope to do an interview with Clifford Tatum, and when I do I’ll ask him for an explanation of this. In the meantime, as I appended to yesterday’s post about the order extending the deadline to vote to 8 PM and the SCOTx ruling that put that aside, the closest race is now one in which the incumbent, 180th District Criminal Court Judge Dasean Jones, trails by 165 votes. If there are still votes, even provisional votes, to be counted, it is possible – still not likely, but possible – Jones could pull ahead. All we can do now is wait and see.

Tatum came in to run this election quite late in the game, and as we know Harris County is still new to the machines with the printers. I thought early voting went pretty smoothly, but there were some significant disruptions on Election Day – some of which were outside the county’s control – and while we were adequately warned about the count taking awhile and the HarrisVotes Twitter account was good about providing updates during the night, we really do need to get the count finished faster than this. I mean, we had 550K more voters in 2020, though the number on Election Day was smaller then because so many people voted early. The point is, the potential for this to be messier in two years unless things improve is significant. It’s going to take more resources and a better plan to collect the votes and get them processed. We need to get started on that ASAP.

UPDATE: Here’s the 8:15 PM version of the Chron story.

The Harris County Elections Office finished its preliminary count Thursday afternoon of more than 1.1 million votes from Tuesday’s election, following its request for an extension to finish its tally beyond the 24-hour deadline set by the state election code.

The county’s submission of the results to the state came shortly after the Harris County Republican Party said it plans to sue the office over claims that polling locations faced paper shortages on Election Day.

The state’s 24-hour rule to complete the Election Day tally is not new, but county officials said this is the first year Harris County has bumped up against the deadline because of the introduction of a paper ballot record now required under state law. The county exceeded the deadline during this year’s March primaries, too.

After receiving the extension, all ballots subject to the 24-hour rule had been counted by 3:12 p.m., according to the elections office. A spokesperson with the Texas Secretary of State’s office confirmed Harris County reported its final results shortly before 5:00 p.m.

At an afternoon press conference, Andy Taylor, the Harris County GOP’s legal counsel, criticized the county’s new Elections Administrator Clifford Tatum, saying the election was poorly run and the GOP is investigating claims that paper shortages occurred at 23 voting locations on Election Day, which Taylor claimed were all located in Republican precincts.

“We will, if those facts support what we believe to be true, file a lawsuit and we will have a day of reckoning in the courtroom for Administrator Tatum and all of his folks,” Taylor said.

Tatum has denied that the county ignored requests to deliver additional paper.

“I have staff in the field at this very moment delivering paper to any location that’s requested,” Tatum said Tuesday evening. “We’ve been delivering paper throughout the day.”

[…]

In response, Harris County Democratic Party Chair Odus Evbagharu said the reconciliation form is designed to be preliminary and unofficial.

“There is literally a disclaimer on this form that says ‘these numbers are subject to change as information is verified after Election Day,'” Evbagharu said. “It’s a snapshot in time of what the numbers are. That’s why we have a canvass. That’s why we have 10 days after to make sure that all of these things are right.”

Evbagharu said that while the reconciliation form is new under a state law passed in 2021, the vote counting process also took time to verify under Republican Stan Stanart, who ran Harris County elections for eight years until 2018.

“They never reconciled it in 24 hours,” Evbagharu said. “The only difference now is that you have it on paper so now they can make a big deal about it.”

He also disputed the claim that election problems only occurred in Republican strongholds, citing voting difficulties residents experienced in Houston’s predominantly Latino East End.

“They’re just now crying into the abyss because they lost,” Evbagharu said. “If I spent $20 million on an election and all I can say is I got a couple judicial seats, I’d be pissed, too. So, I’m not surprised if (Richard) Weekley and Mattress Mack and all these people are calling them like, ‘what the hell did you do with all of our money?'”

[…]

Secretary of State spokesman Sam Taylor said the office’s election trainers on the ground in Harris County Tuesday night observed several members of the early voting ballot board, which processes mail and provisional ballots from prior to Election Day, as well as staff counting regular ballots, leave in the middle of counting.

That “certainly contributed to the delay due to a shortage of people to continue the counting process,” he said.

The early voting ballot board consists of a small group of people appointed by the county elections administrator, sheriff and two major political party chairs, selected from lists submitted by the parties.

We’ll see what happens next. Threatening to sue is a lot easier than suing, which in turn is a lot easier than winning. I personally would like to know more about who wasn’t there during the counting and why. Things will happen, and people will have needs that come up and can’t be helped, but if that is a factor, it needs to be addressed going forward.

How voting machines work

A bit of public service from TPR that almost certainly won’t be read or believed by the people who need to see it.

So how do the voting machines used in Texas elections actually work?

First off, only two voting systems manufacturers are certified to sell their systems in Texas: Hart InterCivic and Election Systems & Software (ES&S).

Hart InterCivic systems are used in 113 counties, including Harris and Tarrant counties. ES&S systems are used in the other 141 counties, including Bexar, Travis, and Dallas counties.

Republican Texas Secretary of State John Scott explained in this video that these companies’ machines must be certified by the Election Assistance Commission, a bipartisan federal body, and the state.

“In Texas, we have even higher standards for our voting systems which must be certified by our office in conjunction with computer science experts and legal experts at the Texas Attorney General’s Office,” he added.

When either company makes an update to its machines or software, it must be re-certified before it can sell those updated systems.

One false allegation that circulated around voting machines is that they are hackable because of a connection to the internet. Scott explained why this isn’t true.

“Voting machines in Texas are never connected to the internet,” he said. “In fact, in order to be certified in Texas elections, they cannot even have the capability of connecting to the internet.”

This allegation comes from a misunderstanding about how voting data gets transferred and counted.

Both Hart InterCivic and ES&S use encrypted USB drives inside their voting systems to collect voting data and physically move those drives to county election departments to tabulate, or count, votes. The drives are designed in such a way that they can only pull data from and provide data to pre-approved computers, so they can’t be plugged into a random laptop and be tampered with.

Scott said there are extensive protocols in place to ensure the drives themselves aren’t stolen or lost.

“Once early voting begins in Texas, there are strict requirements and chain of custody protocols that poll workers must follow continuously with each voting machine,” he said.

That includes transporting the USBs in bags with numbered seals, so it’s easy to tell if they’ve been opened before they were intended to.

Once those USBs are brought to the elections department after early voting ends, they’re locked up until they can be tabulated on Election Day.

There’s more, so read the rest. The sad truth is that the facts are boring and the unhinged conspiracy theories are sexy and exciting, but what are you gonna do? The fact that SOS John Scott is part of the problem is regrettable, but this is the hand we’ve been dealt. Show the denialists in your life the facts and don’t give them an inch. It’s the best we can do.

The counting process

I don’t think I had seen this explained before.

Harris County residents likely will have a long night waiting for election returns Nov. 8, according to county Elections Administrator Clifford Tatum.

It takes around one minute for the county’s equipment to read a digital drive that contains a polling location’s vote count — and election workers will be receiving a drive from each of the county’s 782 polling locations.

The county’s equipment can read two of those drives at the same time, which would put the total counting time — assuming no problems arise — at more than six and a half hours.

“That sort of tells you how long it’s going to take to process all of the results that come in from Election Night,” Tatum said.

“The reality is that we will not have all of the final results tabulated before midnight,” Tatum added. “The math simply does not lend itself to allow us to do that.”

The county has not had complete results before midnight in decades, owing largely to the population and sprawling geography poll workers had to traverse to turn in ballot boxes and voting machines after the polls closed. In recent years, however, wait times for results have stretched further into the early-morning hours. This year’s March primaries took 30 hours to tally, prompting harsh criticism of Tatum’s predecessor, who later resigned over vote-counting issues. Harris County was the only one in the state to exceed the 24-hour limit.

Tatum said the elections office’s top priority is accuracy over speed.

“We just need our voters to know that simply because all the results aren’t in before midnight doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong,” Tatum said. “It’s just the process.”

Asked why the county does not have more equipment available to cut down the reporting time, Tatum said the challenge is balancing speed and accuracy.

“If you have multiple readers going, you want to be sure that the operators that are operating those readers are following the processes and procedures. So, if we have the opportunity to add in an additional reader, we’ll do that. But right now, our plan is to read two at a time. They are expensive equipment. It’s about control and accuracy in the process.”

Sounds reasonable. Usually, we get most of the votes tallied by around midnight – the May elections were both like that, thanks in part to the reduced turnout. The primary this year was an exception, and the blowback from it was exacerbated by a lack of communication from the Elections office. Here, Administrator Clifford Tatum lays out a schedule for when we can expect updates, and if we get that plus clear communications if and when something is causing a delay, I think we’ll be fine. Campos has more.

I think you know the root cause of the problem, John

I was fascinated by this Texas Monthly feature on Secretary of State John Scott, who is being pushed to reckon with the insane and dangerous levels of election denial and anti-democratic activism. I’m pretty sure he gets it, he just doesn’t want to say it or to suggest answers for it.

Take pity on John Scott. In October 2021, Governor Greg Abbott appointed the Fort Worth attorney as Secretary of State, Texas’s top elections official. He immediately found himself in the hot seat, targeted by voting rights activists aggrieved by what they saw as Republican-led voter suppression and by conspiracy theorists inflamed by former president Donald Trump’s claims of a stolen election. Scott, who had previously served under Abbott as deputy attorney general for civil litigation and COO of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, told Texas Monthly at the time that his top priority was “bringing the temperature down.” This proved harder than he anticipated.

Scott’s first major task was to conduct a “full forensic audit” of the 2020 general election in the two largest Democrat-led counties, Dallas and Harris, and the two largest Republican-led counties, Collin and Tarrant. The audit was demanded by Trump—even though he won Texas by more than five percentage points—and had been agreed to, less than nine hours after Trump issued his demand, by the Secretary of State office (the top post was then vacant). The effort immediately drew scorn from both liberals, who denounced it as a capitulation to election deniers, and Trump himself, who complained that limiting the audit to four counties was “weak.”

Phase one of the audit examined voting-machine accuracy, cybersecurity, and potentially ineligible voters. Quietly released last New Year’s Eve, it found nothing unusual about the election. The results of the second phase, a more detailed review of all available records from the four counties, are scheduled to be released later this year.

The inability to please either liberals or conservatives has been the hallmark of Scott’s tenure. He drew bipartisan criticism for the high rejection rate for mail-in ballots (12 percent) during this year’s primary election—an all-too-predictable result of the confusing new vote-by-mail rules imposed by Senate Bill 1, which the Republican-controlled Legislature passed last year over vehement Democratic opposition. Scott’s attempt to fulfill SB 1’s strict voter list–maintenance requirements led his office to challenge the citizenship status of nearly 12,000 registered voters, at least some of whom turned out to be on the list by mistake. His office was sued by a coalition of voting rights groups, including the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which has called the list “a surgical strike against voters of color.” (The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit recently ruled that Scott did not have to divulge the list; the plaintiffs are deciding whether to appeal.)

[…]

With early voting for the November general election just weeks away, Texas Monthly decided to check in with the embattled Secretary of State. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Texas Monthly: The voting-machine test you attended in Hays County got pretty rowdy. What was that like?

John Scott: The local elections administrator in Hays County invited us down to film a public service announcement. It kind of devolved into a little bit of a question-and-answer session [with the activists]. I felt bad that it became disruptive to the process we were all there for. Part of my job is answering questions. But a lot of the people who have questions, it’s the misinformed and the uninformed.

The misinformed people seem like they really don’t care. They know something, and they’re going to stick to it no matter what you tell them. You can talk until you’re blue in the face. With the uninformed, we have to reach out and tell them the truth. Otherwise there will only be bad information circling around. The shouting eventually ended and they did calm down. I think there were several protesters who accepted a lot of what I was saying.

TM: Why do you think so many people are angry about these issues?

JS: I don’t know why. If I did, we would address it immediately. There’s a lack of information, and then there’s people out there filling that lack of information with stories that are simply not true. I have yet to hear about or meet any elections administrator in the state who is not trying to do a perfect job. We’re all humans, and so we’re all prone to error. It seems like, a lot of times, people latch on to those errors and ascribe motives. I don’t know how we stop that other than to continually address it. It’s like Whac-A-Mole.

[…]

TM: Earlier this year, the Brennan Center for Justice conducted a survey of election workers across the country. It found that one in every six workers has received threats because of their job. In Texas, the top three election administrators in Gillespie County recently resigned because of harassment. Tarrant County election administrator Heider Garcia received death threats after being the subject of a conspiracy theory involving his prior employment by voting-machine manufacturer Smartmatic. How big of a problem is this?

JS: It’s a huge problem. Heider and his deputy both carry guns now. They don’t bring them into polling places, because that’s illegal, but they have to have a gun on them. Which is pathetic—the fact that they’re in that much fear of their life, that it’s gotten that heated. I think it’s obscene. In Gillespie County I visited with the county judge and let him know we were here to help in any way possible, given the situation they had. Everybody over there had glowing comments about the elections administrator. She was somebody you would want as your neighbor, and somebody you’d want as your public servant in charge of elections.

I’ve gotten death threats; my folks in the elections division have gotten death threats. It’s become absurd, and I don’t know what’s caused it.

TM: What steps has your office taken to ensure election workers can safely carry out their duties?

JS: We tell each county that if they get threats of any kind to report it to their local law enforcement agency immediately. That’s what we did with our own death threats. This is insanity—you can’t have people receiving death threats for doing their jobs.

TM: You say you’re not sure why it’s gotten so intense. But surely former president Trump’s repeated claims of a stolen election have something to do with it.

JS: Any time the temperature gets turned up, it’s possible to have nuts making these statements. At least in our office, what I was told is that these threats long preceded the 2020 election. The Infowars guy [Alex Jones] has unleashed hell on our election people. This has been going on for many years. And I don’t want to give a free pass to people who are crazy enough to go out there and say they’re going to kill somebody because they’re doing their job. I don’t want to give them an excuse—”Oh, well, it’s because somebody said something.” No, that behavior is unacceptable under any scenario. Just because somebody said something, or they saw something on TV, that doesn’t excuse it.

“Pity” is not the word that comes to mind. I don’t care for John Scott, but I’ll admit to some sympathy for him. He’s facing the heat out there as well as the front-line county election workers, and that’s a lot more than any of our elected state leaders are doing. I take his point about misinformed versus uninformed voters as well, though it sure would be nice if someone like him were a much louder advocate for good information and putting a sufficient amount of resources into combatting that misinformation.

And look, this guy isn’t dumb. He knows what the problem is and who’s causing it, he just doesn’t want to call out his own team. It’s the opposite of courageous, but it’s human enough that I can at least see why he’s being so timid. But those county election administrators are out there getting pummeled, working insane hours, and generally burning themselves out, without any clear sign that the state has their backs. It’s not sustainable, not to mention inhumane and dangerous. How about loudly pushing for state resources to find, arrest, and prosecute people who are threatening these folks? How about urging the AG to look into curbing or at least slowing down these mountains of public record requests, especially from out of state activists, which are basically a denial of service attack on the counties? How about asking your buddy Greg Abbott to say something? There’s a lot John Scott can do even if he’s just an administrator himself. If I saw him doing more of it, even if “it” is just trying to get those with the real power to do something, I’d have a lot more respect for him.

The professional vote-deniers are out there

They’re probing the systems for weaknesses, a line that reminds me of the velociraptors in the original Jurassic Park. Except that the ‘raptors were sleek and efficient predators, while these guys are basically Pennywise with canned scripts and a huge wingnut-funded budget. The malice is still there, though.

Two of Donald Trump’s most prominent allies in his fight to overturn the 2020 election are leading a coordinated, multi-state effort to probe local election officials in battlegrounds such as Michigan, Arizona, and Texas ahead of the November election.

The America Project, an organization founded by Michael Flynn, a retired three-star general and former national security adviser, and former Overstock CEO Patrick Byrne, has so far interviewed or attempted to interview officials in nearly 200 counties across eight swing states, according to copies of notes, recordings of the interviews, and other documents Votebeat found on web pages associated with the organization. The survey questions reflect the same debunked conspiracies and misleading information about elections that Flynn and Byrne have been propagating for years.

The survey questions appear intended to detect potential weaknesses in local election systems and gather detailed information about how elections are run. Election experts say the information could easily be used to fuel misinformation campaigns, disrupt voting, or challenge results.

“It seems consistent with their efforts to really understand how to manipulate the machinery of election administration in this country,” said Ben Berwick, counsel at national nonprofit Protect Democracy, a research and advocacy group.

In 2020, Byrne and Flynn were among the Trump loyalists who devised a plan to seize voting machines across the country and dig up enough evidence of fraud to persuade state lawmakers, Congress, or the vice president to overturn the election results. Now, they are focusing their efforts on the midterm election, with new strategies. A group backed by The America Project, for example, is attempting to purge voter rolls in Georgia ahead of the election.

The surveys are part of The America Project’s latest mission, dubbed “Operation Eagles Wings,” which is organized on foramericafirst.com, with web pages for each of the swing states the group is focused on. Key to the effort is building relationships with local election officials, according to two manuals for local volunteers on the organization’s websites. The officials are asked their opinions on debunked conspiracy theories, perhaps to determine whether they are like-minded individuals. Interviewers are also marking down which clerks are particularly helpful.

Berwick points out that it’s the mission of prominent Trump supporters to fill positions of power — from governors down to local clerks — with people who believe their allegations of election fraud and improprieties. Noting who does and does not support the cause, he said, may be the group’s way of determining “who will be sympathetic to their efforts in the future.”

Election officials have generally been friendly to their interviewers, but have also repeatedly assured them that their elections are fair, voting machines are secure, and voter rolls are accurate.

[…]

A key goal of Operation Eagles Wings is to create small volunteer teams across the country who observe the entirety of the election process, starting in part with the surveys, according to the manuals Votebeat found.

It’s the expansion of what they have dubbed “the Virginia model,” which refers to the work of Cleta Mitchell’s Election Integrity Network in Virginia to create a network for the state’s 2021 election, according to the manuals.* The America Project provided funding to that effort.

The larger Operation Eagles Wings initiative is aimed at educating “election reform activists on everything from grassroots training to election canvassing and fundraising,” according to The America Project’s website. The site claims the group provides training “for Americans who want to make sure there are no repeats of the errors that happened in the 2020 election.”

“We need to do everything in our power to protect the voting process from election meddlers who care only about serving crooked special interest groups that neither respect nor value the rule of law,” the homepage says.

Along with the surveys, the initiative encourages election skeptics to serve as poll workers and observers, perform in-person “voter registration audits,” and to visit “large farms, factories, businesses and especially care homes,” and ask residents whether anyone is forcing them to vote, according to the manuals.

It’s a long story and Votebeat does its typically thorough job of documenting the atrocities. I don’t know what the best way to respond to this is, but I do know that if we don’t figure it out, and find a way to fund it, we’re going to be screwed.

I wish I knew how to turn the heat down

But I do know that I’m not the responsible party for this crap.

About a dozen activists demanding responses to conspiracy theories about election integrity this week disrupted what is typically an uneventful public testing of voting machines ahead of an election in Hays County.

The activists shouted at the county election administrator and Texas’s secretary of state, who was present for the testing. County officials said they’d never previously encountered such intense hostility at the routine event.

The crowd surrounded members of the election test board — which consisted of political party representatives, county officials and election workers — who were assigned to test the machines, pressing in and looking over their shoulders. Many filed into the election department’s large conference room at county headquarters holding notebooks and pens, ready to take notes.

As soon as the testing began, the activists began to raise familiar questions.

“Are the machines all connected?” one asked Jennifer Doinoff, the county’s elections administrator. “How many Bluetooth devices are there?”

No, the machines are not connected, Doinoff responded, nor were there any Bluetooth devices. The questioning continued, sparking side conversations and repeatedly drowning out the voices of those doing the testing. Doinoff, over and over, had to ask the crowd to lower their voices.

“Can we go back to focusing on the testing please?” Doinoff told the crowd. Attendees said they were at the public event — versions of which were held this week by many county election offices across the state — as “concerned citizens” and were not affiliated with any particular group or political party.

Texas law requires public testing of the voting machines be done before and after every election to ensure the machines are counting votes correctly. Half-a-dozen Hart Intercivic voting machines were spaced out on a large table inside the room, ready to be tested by the handful of county officials present to help.

Texas Secretary of State John Scott was on hand in Hays County, home to Texas State University, to observe the testing and film an educational video about Texas’s voting systems.

As testing of the machines continued in the background, the activists turned their attention away from the process, surrounding Scott and peppering him with complaints and prepared questions. Scott, a Republican, spent around 20 minutes listening and answering granular questions.

“We’re following state law,” Scott told them.

“No you’re not,” the activists responded, nearly in unison.

Gosh, John, why do you suppose these “just plain folks” are seething with such hostility? Where do you think they could have gotten those ideas into their heads? It’s a mystery, I tell you.

The Hays County activists also told Scott they believe voting machines are not trustworthy; they want hand-counting ballots of ballots and same-day election results; and emphasized the need for consecutively numbered ballots and to go back to precinct polling places rather than vote centers.

Because people never make mistakes and are faster at counting than computers. Apparently this is a French thing, and never have I been more surprised to hear of a particular obsession with an aspect of French culture.

Doinoff and her staff told Votebeat they weren’t discouraged by the rancor. Instead, the disruption and the questioning highlighted the importance of testing voting systems, also known as logic and accuracy tests, ahead of an election. That process has been standard practice for decades.

“I am still glad that people came,” Doinoff said. “We want them to see it and ask us.”

You are a better person than I am. You also deserve to have all the security you need, and I hope you already have it.

Some ideas for improving elections in Harris County

Put it on the new guy’s to do list.

When Harris County’s new elections administrator starts the job next month, he will have less than three months to get ready before polls open on Oct. 24 for early voting in the November election. On top of the tight timeline, he will run his first Harris County election under intense scrutiny from political insiders who will watch to see whether the county repeats its mistakes from the March primary.

There is work to be done to prevent those and other missteps in the upcoming November election, according to a new report commissioned by the county to look for weak spots in the March primary. The findings point to numerous changes Harris County could make, such as improving training and resources for workers and voters, strengthening recruitment of election workers and streamlining operations.

[…]

The draft report from the research firm Fors Marsh Group offers a glimpse behind the scenes of the primary election — and an accounting of the many challenges the county elections office faces as employees adapt to new leadership, new voting machines and new state laws.

Before Commissioners Court created the appointed elections administrator in October 2020, the county clerk and tax assessor-collector managed voter registration and elections in Harris County. Longoria took on the newly-created position just as the county began to roll out its new voting machines in May 2021.

According to the report, executives at Hart InterCivic — the company that makes the county’s voting machines — pointed to several reasons behind difficulties in the March primary, such as “the transition of electronic to paperbased voting, compounded by the creation of a new Elections Office, the pandemic, and the lack of funding for execution of an effective training and voter education effort.”

A survey of Harris County election judges and poll workers included in the report showed 91 percent were satisfied with the instructors who trained them and the answers they received. However, only 66 percent of those who served as election judges in March thought the training was sufficient, while 35 percent of first-time election judges and poll workers said they did not feel adequately prepared to serve in the election.

Voters would benefit from training on the new machines, too. According to the report, however, “much of the funding initially planned for education and outreach had to be repurposed as part of the office’s internal budgeting process in order to meet other pressing elections needs.”

There also is room to improve how election judges and poll workers are recruited, according to the report. Many election workers were recruited at the last minute for the March primary, the report revealed; 30% were recruited three to four weeks before the election, and 29% recruited one to two weeks before the election.

The report indicates Harris County could streamline its election operations by switching to joint primaries. In Harris County, the Democratic and Republican primaries are operated separately at each voting location, with separate lines and separate machines. In the March primary election, the county had 90 voting locations open during early voting and 375 locations on Election Day, but the report suggested the county really operates double those numbers since each polling place housed two separate primaries: “This system effectively meant setting up and managing 750 polling locations on Election Day, each with its own equipment pick-ups and drop-offs.”

Honestly, a lot of this sounds like growing pains to me, with adjustments needed to get used to new voting machines and the new Election Administrator office. I haven’t gone looking for a copy of the report, but I would also put the issue of collecting election results on Election Day, which also needs a clear answer from the Secretary of State office about what is legal. There’s nothing here that suggests to me that this is a big broken mess that’s going to require a total redesign of the entire system. More training of election workers and of voters on the new machines, both of which will require some more funding, is the big takeaway. That sounds very doable to me, and it sounds like a clear and measurable mission for the new Elections Administrator. Welcome to the job, Clifford Tatum.

Maybe suing to stop the vote count isn’t the best way to get the vote counted

Just a thought.

The Harris County Elections Division released the final, unofficial primary elections results early Thursday, following a GOP petition to impound the records which stopped vote counts hours earlier.

Citing malfunctions and a lack of testing of election machinery, Harris County Republicans alleged their party’s voters experienced irregularities that affected their vote count, according to the petition.

“For example, some voters were able to successfully submit their votes for the first page of their ballot but were unable to submit their votes for the second page of their ballot,” the petition, filed by Harris County Republican Party Chairman Cindy Siegel, states.

Republicans also alleged in the petition that improperly tested election machinery provided to them at various locations had issues with scanning ballots.

[…]

The petition, looking to impound the county’s elections records, was filed at 5:18 p.m. Wednesday, halting the vote count just before the 7 p.m. deadline.

Judge Ursula Hall of the 165th District Court denied the petition, according to court records, instructing Longoria to provide a status update at 11:30 p.m. and allowing the vote count to resume almost two hours after it had been stopped.

“At the time the petition was filed and the Central Count Board halted counting, Harris County Elections had tabulated approximately 99 percent of the ballots cast on Election Night,” Longoria said in an email Wednesday night.

I talked about some of this yesterday. Nearly all of the votes were counted by 1 PM on Wednesday. There were clearly some equipment issues, which caused problems with vote counting. We didn’t have those problems last November, though there were other issues that affected how long it took for results to be posted, so it would be good to understand why we had these problems this time around. I suspect that some of it was that there were voters using these machines for the first time, as the elections office mentioned. Turnout last November was 230K, while the combined Democratic and Republican turnout this week was over 340K. I suspect that there were a significant number of March voters who weren’t November voters – these are very different election contexts – so it may have been that there were a lot of newbies. If that is the case, then we really need to put a lot more resources into voter education, because we’re going to have more than twice that many people, maybe three times that many people, voting this November. Indeed, turnout in November 2018 was over 1.2 million, so that’s a hell of a lot more newbies. We need to get that ironed out, if it was a significant factor.

It’s also clear that the mail ballot issue was a problem, because it forced the elections office to spend a lot of time trying to contact voters whose ballots had been rejected, many of whom then had to trek to the office to fix them in person. The HCDP needs to work on that for its own voters, because that provision was aimed at us and it will take a chunk out of our vote total if we don’t do everything we can to minimize it. And I will say again, we deserve to have a full accounting of whose ballots and ballot applications got rejected along the way and what happened to them after.

Beyond that, to repeat what I said last November, we need to get some clear communication from the elections office about what did happen and why it happened and what they learned from it. I don’t put any faith in the Republican complaints – after the lawsuits some of them filed in 2020, they have zero credibility on these matters – but Commissioners Court can sure do their part to get some answers when the results are canvassed. There were some issues, from the new voting machines that many people hadn’t used before to the ridiculous mail ballot bullshit to some election judge shortages to various technical problems that can crop up. We have two low-key May elections, plus maybe a tiny June election (runoffs for the specials), and then a huge November election that really really really needs to run smoothly. The process to make that happen starts now.

Today is primary day

Today’s the day!

The interactive map of voting locations is here. Note that they list 381 total locations, but only show 50 at a time, and they seem to be ordered more or less in a north-to-south fashion. Don’t freak out if you don’t see anything close to you at first glance. A PDF list of locations is here – it’s alphabetized instead of being in precinct order, so it’s probably more useful if you have a location in mind and just want to verify that it’s available.

Probably about half of the votes for the primaries in both parties will be cast today, so it should be brisk business but hopefully not too congested anywhere. This will be the first real test of the new voting machines with paper receipts, but as long as each location has multiple printers there should be some mitigation for technology issues. We’ll see how that goes. I also hope that the issue of how many machines are dedicated to each party at each location is resolved in a better way than it was in 2020. I really don’t want to see anyone still voting at midnight. I’ve got another post up about various Election Day things, and of course I’ll have results tomorrow. Check in with your experience in the comments if you vote today.

Just be glad you’re not a Republican primary voter in Potter County

This is, and I cannot stress this enough, batshit crazy.

The Potter County Republican Party plans to conduct its own election during the Texas primary on March 1, independent of the county election administration. People voting in Republican races on Election Day will cast hand-marked ballots that will be hand counted, which the party believes to be more secure. Experts say the move will introduce a higher risk of fraud, confuse voters, and likely result in legal challenges.

“This introduces a lot of potential mistakes and it also introduces opportunities for fraud,” said Christina Adkins, the legal director of the Texas Secretary of State’s elections division. “The candidates on this ballot really need to think about whether this is how they want their election run.”

The plan is the brainchild of county GOP chair Dan Rogers. He said repeatedly that turnout in the county, home to Amarillo, had gone down since the county introduced voting machines and voting centers in 2015. “The more they try to make it easier and add gadgetry, it goes down,” he said. This is false. Historical voting data shows no significant change in county turnout patterns since the introduction of the technology.

[…]

Rogers said he “doesn’t know” if the county’s machines are error-ridden or not. The county currently uses Hart InterCivic direct-recording electronic machines that do not produce a paper ballot but will be modified next year to comply with a new Texas law that requires such a printout. He said voters do not trust the technology and would prefer to vote on paper. Asked for survey data to support this claim, he said he didn’t need it, and instead recounted a conversation with his mechanic. “I know my voters,” he said.

On Dec. 3, Rogers sent out an email titled “Potter County (Amarillo) takes the first step toward real election integrity” to Republican Party chairs in every Texas county, encouraging them to copy his plan. “We would like to see other County Committees follow our lead and we will help any County Chair interested in having real secret ballot elections,” he wrote. He has received no interest.

Chris Davis, the election administrator in Williamson County and vice president of the Texas Association of Elections Administrators, learned of Rogers’ plan from an email forwarded by the local party chair. “This will end badly,” Davis said, predicting extreme voter confusion. He said his county party has no desire to move in that direction and he is unaware of any county making a similar decision.

[…]

While neither the state nor the county can stop Rogers from carrying out this plan — the parties are entirely responsible for the conduct of primary elections on Election Day — officials at both levels of government have repeatedly warned Rogers that his move will confuse voters. By state law, the county must manage early voting and vote by mail, which is how local administrators anticipate most county voters will cast their ballots. The county will use voting machines, as required by county statute. Typically a minority of voters do present in person on election day and thus, under Rogers’ plan, would be subject to entirely different rules and would have to report to different voting locations than they have in the past.

While Potter County uses a voting center model — relying on epollbooks and voting machines to allow voters to cast ballots anywhere in the county — Rogers has decided that the party will use only paper pollbooks and that voters must report to their assigned precinct.

Melynn Huntley, the election administrator for the county, said that Rogers may “alienate his own voters” with the plan. “Suddenly, they are going to show up to vote and realize it’s not in the same location,” she said. “Running a quality election is hard for even the most experienced counties.”

The lack of epollbooks also means that election workers will have no means to ensure that individuals who cast a ballot in the Democratic primary are not also casting ballots in the Republican primary. “One of the biggest problems with this is that it’s throwing the doors wide open to voter fraud,” said Huntley, an assertion Adkins agreed with.

Rogers acknowledged he would not be able to check for double voting but said he doesn’t believe anyone will try. “They’d be charged with a felony,” he said. He acknowledged there would be no way to remove these individuals’ votes from the total count after election day. “I trust people,” he told me. “You are the one that doesn’t trust people.”

I could quote the whole story at you, because it just keeps getting more and more insane. Rogers seems to think that it will take 30 minutes to hand-count all the ballots and that there will be no errors. He’s dismissive of any potential violations of federal law that require ADA-compliant voting machines. You can infer what I think from the embedded image. Good luck and godspeed to you, Republican primary voters of Potter County. Maybe vote for a better party chair next time.

(This story was reprinted in the Houston Chronicle. I hope they run it in the print edition, too.)

Meet your new voting machines

Long time coming.

Harris County’s new voting machine, which county leaders showed off on Wednesday, incorporates old and new technology the county election administrator says will make voting easier and boost public confidence in elections.

The Hart InterCivic Verity Duo, the county’s new model, has a touch screen interface that allows users to quickly make selections. It also produces a paper ballot which voters can ensure accurately marked their choices before submitting it into a scanner.

“I am ecstatic about the new machines,” Harris County Election Administrator Isabel Longoria said. “The touch screen process, the accessibility features, the paper ballot so that people can make sure the selections they made are the ones that are counted — this is all phenomenal for Houston.”

[…]

The Verity Duo stores a voter’s ballot in three separate locations, Longoria said: on two separate hard drives inside the machines and also on the paper ballot that is scanned. The hard copy ballots are kept for 22 months, in case a manual election audit is needed. The paper ballots are printed in English rather than a bar code, which allows humans and computers to read the same document, Hart Senior Vice President Peter Litchenheld said.

The machines are enabled to perform in the county’s four ballot languages — English, Spanish, Vietnamese and Mandarin — and also offer large text sizes for visually impaired voters.

The Harris County Election Administration Office is debuting the new machines in the May joint election. November will be the first countywide election in which they will be used.

See here for the previous update. There’s a video in the story showing how the new machine is used. I think people in general will find the touchscreen interface to be easier and more intuitive to use, but I agree with Campos that the Elections office should do as much public outreach about these new machines as they can. We all know that if it’s this year or 2024, some number of people are going to show up and have no idea that there are new machines and won’t know what to do with them. The best we can do is try to minimize that number. Houston Public Media has more.

Commissioners Court approves funds for new voting machines

Long awaited.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday unanimously approved a $54 million deal to replace the current eSlate machines with ones featuring touch screens, a paper backup and features that make voting more accessible for seniors and residents with disabilities.

The new machines allow voters to select candidates or ballots measures on a touchpad instead of the rotating wheel, now derided by critics as a clunky feature that some voters mistakenly have used to cast ballots for the wrong candidate.

After voters complete and review their ballots, the machines will print out the selections, at which point voters again can review their ballots for any erroneous choices. They then will take the printed ballots to an electronic ballot box that will record the votes and store the paper ballots, in case the election is called into question and needs to be audited.

“Really, the utility of the paper record is, instead of having to program our machines to spit out receipts, we are getting the record as the voter sees it, into a ballot box that, should we need to count or recount or pull something back later, we can pull it up,” Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria said Wednesday.

The election results will be stored on two separate hard drives for each voting machine, one of which can only be accessed with a special key provided to Longoria’s office. The new safeguards are expected to provide stronger security than the current system, in which votes are recorded on mobile memory cards that are brought to a central counting site, uploaded onto a computer and tallied.

Longoria also said the new machines may provide faster election results, as votes can only be tallied under the current system using an outdated computer processing software with slower processing speeds than what is widely available today. Harris County election nights have famously stretched well past midnight during previous elections due to the pace of the election results being uploaded.

[…]

Under the contract approved Tuesday, Hart will provide Harris County with 12,000 machines and an assortment of other election equipment, including voting booths and ballot boxes.

Among the other upgrades are what officials say will be a more robust voting system for residents with disabilities. Longoria described the existing setup as “primitive,” in which voters use red and green “paddles,” or buttons, that replace the scrolling wheel and enter button.

“Now you’ll have, essentially, a remote control attached to the machine that has directional arrows and multiple buttons, so that folks with a different kind of physical need will have the same access to voting,” Longoria said.

The elections administrator’s office will receive the first shipment of devices by March 1. Longoria and her staff will start familiarizing themselves with the machines and decide whether to use them for the May 2021 local elections. If they opt to wait, the machines would be in place for the March 2022 primaries.

“The really big deciding factor for me is, how long will it take to train all of our internal staff on these new machines to feel comfortable with them? And then the turnaround time for us to develop those training materials so that we can really safely and fairly train up the different clerks and judges that will have to use these on Election Day,” Longoria said.

See here for my previous update on this topic, here for a Twitter thread from the Election Administrator’s office, and here for their press release. I asked Isabel Longoria some questions about this when I interviewed her, but she was not yet in a position to discuss the details. From what we’ve seen, it sounds like the new machines have everything we’ve been wanting, and it all sounds pretty good to me. Other counties such a Tarrant use the same machines, so we can learn from their experience. It would be nice to have them in place for the May elections, but given that 2021 is an off year for the city, November will be a low-turnout affair that can serve as a test run as well. Either way, I’m looking forward to seeing what our new machines can do.

A few words about election security

Lisa Gray talks to my friend Dan Wallach about everybody’s favorite subject.

If I’m aiming to steal an election, what’s the best way to go about it? Are mail-in ballots the easiest?

If your goal is to steal an election, there are so many different things you could do. Really the question is, are you trying to be stealthy about it? Or are you perfectly OK with making a giant public mess? Because if you don’t mind making a mess, the easiest way to steal an election is to break the voter registration system — to cause long lines, to cause voters to give up and walk away.

But it would be totally obvious if that had happened. And at least as far as we know, it hasn’t happened. The other obvious way that you can break an election is, of course, with misinformation. If you can convince the voters to vote in a way different than they were originally planning — because of a conspiracy theory or whatever — that’s also an excellent way of manipulating the outcome of an election.

Manipulating voting machines in the tabulation process is actually a lot more work, especially if you want to do it subtly. And at least so far, that doesn’t seem to be happening.

Are mail-in ballots inherently less reliable than votes counted on Election Day?

Once we have paper ballots, whether they’re paper ballots that are cast in person, or paper ballots that are returned through the mail, the security of that system is actually pretty good. I’m not as worried about ballot-box stuffing and things like that. The things that concern me more are when you have a system with no paper at all — which, of course, is how we vote here in Harris County.

This is probably the last year that Harris County will be using that electronic paperless voting system. We’ll see.

Probably the place where we’re seeing the most excitement with tight elections now is in Georgia. The state of Georgia used to use a paperless electronic system that would have been relatively straightforward to manipulate, if that was what you wanted to do.

But they’ve replaced it! The whole state of Georgia now votes using a “ballot marking device,” where you touch the screen, select your preferences, and then it prints a paper ballot. As long as Georgia voters actually bother to look at it, and say, “Yep, that’s who I was planning to vote for,” the risk of undetected tampering goes down significantly.

[…]

How should we handle future elections? Those eSlate machines have got to go. But what else, for American elections’ sake, do we need to do?

Let’s start with Harris County. Harris County is using a type of voting machine that they first purchased in the early 2000s. They had a warehouse fire in 2010, so all of our machines are actually quite a bit newer than that, because after the fire, they had to buy new ones.

Those are new versions of ancient tech? My adult kids voted for the first time in Harris County this year, and they were both astounded by what they called “1990s technology.” Those clunky dials! It’s like using a Blackberry in 2020.

It’s exactly like using a Blackberry in 2020. It’s time for these machines to be retired. Our previous county clerk Diane Trautman had said that that was her plan, and she’d started the process — vendors doing dog-and-pony shows, members of the community invited to show up and watch presentations. All of that was in process when COVID hit.

[Trautman resigned because of health problems, and Chris Hollins was an interim replacement.] Now we are going to have an appointed election administrator, Isabel Longoria, who handles voter registration and manages elections. So Longoria is going to be responsible for picking up where this all left off. I don’t know their timeline. I don’t know their plans. But definitely it’s time to move on from the eSlates.

I expect that they will be very interested in having a bigger vote-by-mail solution. The state may or may not make it easier for voters to vote by mail. That’s an unfortunately partisan process, even though it shouldn’t be. All Washington State, Oregon and Colorado vote by mail — 100% of the vote.

But Texas doesn’t believe in no-excuse vote by mail, so I expect that we’re also going to see new voting machines of some kind. Every new voting machine that’s worth buying prints a paper ballot of some sort. That is likely the direction that we’re headed.

There will be pricing issues and cost issues. There will be questions like, Does it support all of the languages that Harris County requires? Does the tabulation system do all the things that we need? Is the vendor going to give us a good price? All that is in play. This is as much about a large government procurement process as it is about voting in particular.

I expect that will all play out next year. They will announce a winner of the procurement, and then we’ll start seeing these new machines used in smaller elections, where there are fewer voters and there’s less attention being paid. In a smaller election, things can go wrong, and it won’t be the end of the world.

Most of this is familiar to us, from the swan song of the eSlate machines to the plans to get new voting machines for the 2021 elections, which will be an off year for city races, thus making it even smaller than usual. I’ll be keeping a close eye on what kind of machines we may get, as this will be the first major task of Isabel Longoria’s tenure as Election Administrator. Lisa and Dan also talk about the exemplary voting experience we had here in Harris County in 2020, which we all hope and expect will be the template going forward. Check it out.

The swan song for eSlate machines

We’re still using them for this election, as clunky and outdated as they are, but they’re on the way out.

Harris County may shatter turnout records with as many as 1.5 million voters in this year’s presidential election, the county clerk estimates.

It also has achieved a less desirable position, however — the county will be the largest jurisdiction in the United States that cannot audit its election results because it uses a voting system that does not produce a paper record.

Of all the paperless votes in the country, about 1 in 5 will be cast here, according to an analysis by the New York University Law School-based Brennan Center for Justice.

“If there’s some reason to cast doubt on the election outcome, there’s nothing independent of the software to turn back to with a paperless system,” said Lawrence Norden, director of the center’s election reform program. “All you can likely do is re-run the results and have the software come up with the same results as the previous time. I don’t think that’s great for voter confidence.”

[…]

Despite warnings from election security experts and an acknowledgment by past Republican and Democratic county clerks that new machines were needed, Harris County failed to follow the state’s other urban counties in doing so before 2020. Texas is one of 14 states that still permits paperless voting systems.

The county since 2002 has used the Hart InterCivic eSlate machine, remembered by many voters by its spinning wheel interface. It records votes on a mobile memory card which then is brought to a central counting site, uploaded onto a computer and tallied.

[…]

Fort Bend County Elections Administrator John Oldham said he decided to make the switch after the Legislature in 2019 nearly passed a ban on paperless machines. Plus, his 13-year-old machines had begun to fail.

“They were having issues with the capacitors on the motherboard burning up,” Oldham said. “The last couple years, we were getting 15 to 20 of these things happening every election.”

Harris County failed to move as quickly, however. Both 2018 candidates for county clerk, Republican Stan Stanart and Democrat Diane Trautman, pledged to replace the aging eSlates.

“We must replace the current electronic machines with a machine that produces a verifiable paper trail,” Trautman said a few days after she won the election.

She initially had hoped to acquire the new machines in time for the 2020 presidential election — Houston even hosted a voting machine trade show this past July — but within months of taking office concluded the timeline was not feasible.

The county last December began soliciting vendor proposals, aiming to debut new machines in the May 2021 elections.

Launching a new voting system in a low-turnout election is wise because it allows county clerks to resolve inevitable problems with a wider margin for error, said Rice University professor of computer science Dan Wallach.

“Otherwise, you’re just inviting new system jitters making a mess when you really, really want smooth sailing,” Wallach said in an email.

At least we know what we’re getting with them. While it’s true that the 2018 candidates for County Clerk made promises that have not yet been fulfilled to replace the eSlates, Stan Stanart was first elected Clerk in 2010, so he could have moved sooner than that. Be that as it may, we’ll get new machines for next year. Expect there to be some serious activity in this department when the new elections administrator comes on board.

County to seek new voting machines

About time.

Diane Trautman

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday unanimously approved County Clerk Diane Trautman’s plan to seek vendor proposals for new voting machines.

The clerk’s office plans to issue a request for proposal for a new voting system this month. An evaluation committee composed of county government officials will vet proposals and recommend a model by August 2020, according to a timeline Trautman provided.

“We did establish a community advisory community and met with them, and we received written and online feedback,” Trautman said. “We also had an election machine vendor fair where the community came out … the next step is to start the RFP process.”

The clerk’s office plans to purchase the new machines by the end of 2020.

After training election judges and staging demonstrations for the public, Trautman plans to debut the devices in the May 2021 elections. Trautman initially had explored the idea of buying new machines in time for the November 2020 general election, which could see a record number of voters because it is a presidential year, but concluded that timeline was not feasible.

Rolling out the machines in a low-turnout election would allow elections officials to more easily address any problems that arise, she said.

[…]

County Judge Lina Hidalgo urged Trautman to look for ways to decrease wait times at polling sites in the 2020 general election. Since the Legislature eliminated straight-ticket voting after the 2018 election, a time-saving method 76 percent of Harris County voters used that November, officials across the state worry future elections would feature long lines to cast ballots.

“I just want to reiterate my commitment to you to support work to make those lines shorter and fast, and anything we need to do for these 2020 elections, given that we still use these old voting machines,” Hidalgo said.

Security, ease of use, and some form of paper receipt should be the top priorities. Look to Travis County for some ideas – as with voting centers, having Michael Winn on staff will surely help with that. Those voting centers are intended to help with the long lines – having extended hours and more locations during early voting helps, too – and maybe we could remind some folks that they have the ability to vote by mail, too. I’m very much looking forward to seeing the vendor proposals.

The 2019 ballot order

Time once again for this risible ceremony.

The order of the November Houston ballot was set Friday morning in a random drawing at City Hall, laying out how the candidates for mayor, controller and city council will appear when voters cast their ballots this fall.

Here is the order of the 12-candidate field for mayor, as it will appear on the ballot:

  • Demetria Smith
  • Naoufal Houjami
  • Victoria Romero
  • Roy J. Vasquez
  • Kendall Baker
  • Derrick Broze
  • Sue Lovell
  • Bill King
  • Sylvester Turner
  • Tony Buzbee
  • Dwight A. Boykins
  • Johnny “J.T.” Taylor

Though candidates listed atop the ballot traditionally receive a slight bump, the leading candidates for mayor this year are clustered together near the bottom, appearing to deny anyone a major advantage in the order.

The order for all of the Houston elections can be seen here. The ballot order for other elections, such as for HISD and HCC, are set by the entities that run those elections.

This is the time when I put on my Grumpy Old Man hat, hitch up my Grumpy Old Man pants, and complain for the umpty-umpth time about the whole “drawing for ballot position” thing. We are in the year of our Lord two thousand and nineteen. We have been using electronic doohickies to conduct our elections for almost two decades. Why in the name of Ada Lovelace have we not made it a requirement to have those electronic election doohickies randomize the order of candidates for each individual voter? The idea that there could be even a tiny advantage to the candidate who through the luck of the draw gets to have their name first on the ballot is an utter abomination, one that could be resolved by one line of code in the programming of those electronic voting doohickies. Why oh Lord why can we not do this?

(The answer to my overwrought rhetorical question is almost certainly “because state law doesn’t allow it”, and to be fair the people who have a genuine, good faith interest in conducting better and fairer elections have much bigger fish to fry than this pet issue of mine. That said, there’s nothing at all partisan in what I am once again bitching about. I would like to think that a bill that mandated random ballot order, to be implemented as each vote-conducting entity upgrades its current voting machines, or by some deadline ten or so years in the future, would not draw strong opposition. Maybe someday, someone will take up my admittedly small-bore cause. Until then, I look forward to whining about this again early next year, when the ballot order for the 2020 primary races is established.)

An update on election security

Nothing to see here.

Russian hackers probed election systems in all 50 states, a new Senate report confirmed Thursday.

The report comes one day after former special counsel Robert Mueller told Congress that the Russian government is working to meddle in U.S. elections “as we sit here.”

“It wasn’t a single attempt,” Mueller said Wednesday of Russia’s 2016 election interference. “They’re doing it as we sit here. And they expect to do it during the next campaign.”

The bipartisan report by the Senate Intelligence Committee released Thursday confirmed previous comments by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that Russian hackers scanned election systems in all 50 states ahead of the 2016 presidential election. DHS initially acknowledged Russian attempts to hack into election systems in just 21 states.

[…]

Democrats used Mueller’s testimony Wednesday as the backdrop to bring a trio of election security bills to the Senate floor, but Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS) blocked each one in succession.

Two of the measures, one by Warner and the other by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), would require campaigns to report offers of foreign support. The third, by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), would have allowed the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms to help secure personal electronic devices belonging to senators and their staff.

Hyde-Smith has not said why she blocked the measures, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), has long opposed bringing election-security measures up for vote. Last year, for example, Senate Rules and Administration Committee Chair Roy Blunt (R-MO) accused McConnell of blocking another election security bill, explaining that McConnell believed the issue “reaches no conclusion.”

“[McConnell] has a long history of opposing election reform,” Wyden told ThinkProgress earlier this year. “And he’s got people in his caucus who’ll do a lot of the heavy lifting for him.”

Remain calm, all is well.

Senate Intel Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC), and Vice Chair Mark Warner (D-Va.) each issued statements with the report’s release. Burr said that in 2016, the United States was “unprepared at all levels of government” for attacks on election infrastructure, and has improved in the time since. Burr noted that the Department of Homeland Security and state election officials have a much better working relationship than before, but that “still much work remains to be done.”

It’s unclear whether Burr considers federal elections security legislation as part of the work that remains to be done. Mitch McConnell, Burr’s Republican colleague and the Senate majority leader, has prevented most of this type of legislation from coming to the Senate floor, arguing that Congress has done enough and that pending election security legislation is merely the Democrats’ effort to usurp states’ rights and bolster their chances at the polls.

Warner, who a day ago was part of a group of Congressional Democrats that blasted McConnell for holding up election security legislation, alluded to the need to get past the partisan gridlock. “I hope the bipartisan findings and recommendations outlined in this report will underscore to the White House and all of our colleagues, regardless of political party, that this threat remains urgent, and we have a responsibility to defend our democracy against it,” he said in a statement.

The report notes that the Russian operation dates back to “at least 2014.” It reveals that state and local officials, who are mostly in charge of running elections, “were not sufficiently warned or prepared to handle an attack from a hostile nation-state actor,” and that officials at all levels of the government debated whether to publicly acknowledge what was happening, with some concerned that disclosing it “might promote the very impression they were trying to dispel—that the voting systems were insecure.” At the time, McConnell took an active role in preventing further public disclosure of the Russian operation, theWashington Post reported in December 2016.

Go about your business.

Hacking individual voting machines would be an inefficient way to throw an election. But J. Alex Halderman, a computer scientist who has tested vulnerabilities for more than a decade, testified to the Senate committee that he and his team “created attacks that can spread from machine to machine, like a computer virus, and silently change election outcomes.” They studied touch-screen and optical-scan systems, and “in every single case,” he said, “we found ways for attackers to sabotage machines and steal votes.”

Another way to throw an election might be to attack systems that manage voter-registration lists, which the hackers also did in some states. Remove people from the lists—focusing on areas dominated by members of the party that the hacker wants to lose—and they won’t be able to vote.

One former senior intelligence official told me, “If I was going to hack such a system, I’d leave the records alone and corrupt the tally software”—the programs that count the votes and transmit results to a central headquarters. The transmission is done through a network, which is vulnerable to hackers. Some data are transmitted from the voting machines via USB ports, which are also easy to hack.

In the past decade, many states have installed voting machines with paper backups. (One of the measures blocked in the Senate this week would have required them.) But the Senate report notes that 19 states do not conduct complete postelection audits to compare these ballots to the electronic results; five of them do not audit at all. Paper backups mean little if nobody looks at them.

Computerized voting might be inherently vulnerable. Matt Blaze, who holds the McDevitt Chair of Computer Science at Georgetown Law, said at a hacking conference in Washington earlier this year, “Voting security is by far the hardest problem I have ever encountered.”

That last link does have a proposed solution, if you’re not too depressed to read it. But as with most things in this life, if we want to make progress on fixing the problem, we have to first solve the Mitch McConnell problem.

Harris County goes shopping for new voting machines

It’s time.

Diane Trautman

Harris County formally has begun searching for a new voting machine model with the aim of debuting the devices in a 2021 election, County Clerk Diane Trautman announced Tuesday.

Speaking at the International Association of Government Officials trade show in downtown Houston, Trautman said the county plans to select a vendor for new voting machines by next July. She estimated the cost of purchasing about 5,000 machines would be $74 million.

“One of the issues that I campaigned on was making the election process simpler and more convenient, and more trustworthy,” Trautman said. She added, “Now it is time to address making the voting process more trustworthy by replacing our outdated voting machines.”

Trautman said replacing the current machines, some of which are 20 years old, is an important next step after her administration debuted countywide voting centers in May. Harris County awaits approval from the secretary of state to expand the system, which allows voters to cast ballots at any location, regardless of their assigned precincts.

The clerk’s office plans to form a community advisory group in the fall and issue a request for proposals to vendors in January. A voting selection committee comprised of election workers and staff from the county universal services and purchasing departments will help choose two voting machines as finalists in March.

John Coby was at that trade show as well, and he’s got some pictures if you want to see what Trautman et al were looking at. The goal is to have the new machines in place for the 2021 election, which will provide a nice lower-turnout environment for a shakedown cruise. The head voting honcho at the Clerk’s office is Michael Winn, who came over from Travis County, where they replaced their voting machines a few years ago and have been doing some design work for the next generation of them. Look for some of those features, which will include a printed receipt, as we go forward.

Use that mandate in Harris County

Jay Aiyer pens an agenda for Harris County and its Democratic government.

First and foremost, flood mitigation has to be at the top of any list. Harris County has taken good initial steps to improve flood control infrastructure, and the passage of flood control bonds was badly needed. Those steps however, are only the beginning of what needs to be done. Development changes that prohibit growth and expansion in the floodplain, and ideas from experts like Rice University’s Raj Makand to impose a moratorium on new municipal utility districts until the region has a comprehensive plan for flood mitigation should be considered. Infrastructure development in Harris County — everything from toll road expansion to affordable housing construction should be factored into flood control efforts. Flood mitigation needs to be the county’s top priority.

[…]

The need for ethics and transparency is also required at the Commissioner’s Court itself. Unlike Houston City Council or the Texas Legislature, Harris County government remains largely shrouded in secrecy. The lack of broad transparency and pro-forma meetings results in a policy process that is largely kept behind closed doors. Commissioners have wide latitude in how business is conducted within their precinct, but that should be governed by a strong ethics policy that requires lobbyists to register and places limits on campaign contributions. A strong government requires one grounded in ethics and transparency.

Access to the ballot box and the integrity of voting process remains a major concern to all voters. Harris County needs a transparent and error-free voter registration process that works to actively register voters. Texas is eliminating straight ticket voting in 2020 and Harris County needs to start preparing for the longer lines and logistical strains that surround the longest electoral ballot in the country. This means expanding the number early voting locations throughout the county, as well as extending the hours of operation. Harris County also needs to follow other Texas counties and create election day voting centers that allow voters to cast a vote at location throughout the county — not just at a precinct.

Part of the improving voting means replacing the outdated machines. The current click-wheel electronic voting system is outdated and slow in handling our long ballot. Harris County needs to invest in modern, verifiable voting machines that can provide confidence in the electoral process while allowing voters to exercise their vote quickly and efficiently. County government has historically worked to make voting more difficult and cumbersome, and these reforms would be a good first step in reversing that.

Finally, Harris County should also revisit initiatives around the expansion of early childcare. In 2013, the well-meaning pre-K training initiative “Early to Rise,” which called for a ballot initiative to expand pre-K training programs, was strongly opposed by outgoing County Judge Ed Emmett and the Republican majority of Commissioner’s Court. While that initial plan was limited in scope, the idea of a regional approach to expanding early child care is one that needs to be explored. Research indicates that investing in early education initiatives are the best way to mitigate the effects of poverty and improve long term educational outcomes. A countywide program may be the smartest long term investment that Harris County could make.

I endorse all of Jay’s idea, which he proposes as a first-100-days plan, and I’d add a few things of my own, none of which need to be done immediately. One is for Harris County to be a more active partner with Metro, and to be fully engaged in the forthcoming transit plan and referendum. There are a lot of ways the county can contribute to better transit, and with everything Metro has going on now, this is the time. Two, continue the work Ed Emmett started in consolidating services with Houston and other cities, and make non-MUD governance a part of that development reform Aiyer outlines. Three, figure out what the office of the Treasurer can and should be doing. Incoming Treasurer Dylan Osborne has his own ideas, of course, but my point is that back in the 90s Commissioners Court basically neutered the office during Don Sumners’ term. Maybe now the time has come to restore some actual power to that office. Other counties have Treasurers, perhaps we should look to them to see if there’s a good model to follow.

I’m sure there are plenty of other ideas. (The parts that I cut out for this excerpt talked about criminal justice and bail reform, some of which have been going on.) Reviving the pre-K proposal is especially something we should all get behind. The point is, there is much that can be done, and no reason to feel restrained by “we’ve always done it that way” thinking. If it’s a good idea, let’s talk about it and figure out if we can make it work. It’s a new era in Harris County.

Trautman talks new voting machines

As is usually the case, finding the funding will be the key.

Diane Trautman

The newly elected Harris County clerk plans to phase out the county’s eSlate voting machines, which have occasionally caused problems for voters.

Diane Trautman, who beat the incumbent in the countywide sweep of Democrats, also wants to improve the county’s elections technology so voters can cast ballots in any precinct on Election Day. Currently, residents are allowed to vote at any polling place during early voting, but must use a designated location on Election Day.

“We must replace the current electronic machines with an electronic machine that produces a verifiable paper trail,” Trautman said. “The problem, of course, is the funding.”

[…]

Stanart said he also had planned to phase out the eSlate voting machines if re-elected.

On average, the devices are eight years old. Most were purchased after a 2010 fire destroyed the warehouse where Harris County stored its voting machines.

Stanart’s spokesman, Hector de Leon, said the clerk’s office estimates that replacing the county’s 8,189 eSlate machines would cost about $75 million. Trautman said she would explore whether the state or federal government could cover part of the cost.

[…]

Meanwhile, Commissioners Court would need to approve the purchase of new machines, and members are supportive of the idea. Incoming Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said improving the voting experience for residents must be a priority.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle urged Trautman to prepare a detailed proposal for replacing the eSlate machines and present it to the court. He said new machines must be a technological upgrade and have a long-term life span.

“Let’s not throw out good machines just to get fancy new ones,” Cagle said. “What we buy next, let’s make sure it lasts a while, as well.”

I’m glad to hear that there is support for moving forward on this. We should write up our standards, talk to Travis County about their systems, revisit that cost estimate, and begin meeting with legislators and members of Congress to see what funding they may be able to provide. It also looks like we can begin work on moving towards a vote center system for Election Day, which ought to help alleviate some of the problems we have seen when precinct voting locations have had technical problems. I can’t wait to see how this goes.

Yeah, we’re still talking about the risk to our elections

And when we talk about these things, we talk to Dan Wallach.

When we think about those who defend the territorial integrity of our nation and state, we tend to imagine well-equipped members of the U.S. armed forces, or perhaps a square-jawed detachment of Texas Rangers. Increasingly, however, the twenty-first century battle for control of the American homeland is being fought in the computerized elections systems overseen by our humble county clerks.

Here in Texas, votes in federal and state elections are tallied independently by 254 local officials, one in each county seat, from big cities like Houston and Dallas to tiny courthouse towns like Tahoka and Floydada. If a hostile country decides to hack an election in Texas, that means pitting Russia’s (or Iran’s or North Korea’s or China’s) most skilled hackers against a group of officials and volunteers who may not even know their way around an iPhone.

“We’re asking county clerks, and for that matter local poll workers, to defend against a nation-state adversary,” says Dan Wallach, computer science professor at Rice and expert on election security issues. “That’s not a fair fight.”

Wallach, a graduate of J.J. Pearce High School in Richardson as well as U.C. Berkeley and Princeton, has made it his mission to assist local election administrators by helping to develop and advocate for the adoption of foolproof, verifiable election systems and policies in Texas. From 2011 to 2015, Wallach served on the U.S. Air Force Scientific Advisory Board; before that he led the National Science Foundation–funded ACCURATE (A Center for Correct, Usable, Reliable, Auditable, and Transparent Elections). Most recently, he’s been seen testifying before the Texas Senate on issues related to election security.

“From a security perspective, the systems that we use, these electronic voting systems, were never engineered with the threat model of foreign nation-state actors,” Wallach says of the status quo in Texas. “I have no idea if anybody’s planning to exploit them, but there’s no question that the vulnerabilities are present.”

That’s the bad news. The good news is that remedies are within reach, if Texas is willing to invest money and other state-level resources to improve election security. Experts like Wallach have identified best practices that can make elections reliably secure for the current threat horizon. Wallach proposes what amounts to a three-step plan for improved election security: better machines, better oversight, and better contingency planning.

The rest of the story delves into those three steps; it begins of course with auditable voting machines that include printed ballots. Speaking from my perspective in the IT security field, I can confirm that every big company that wants to stay in business past tomorrow zealously captures, indexes, and monitors its systems’ log files, both to look for real-time anomalies and to provide a written record of what happened in the event of a breach or other failure. It’s just standard practice in the real world. Why our state government is so resistant to it for our election systems is a question for which they really need to be held accountable. I would also note that the $350 million price tag to replace every obsolete voting machine in the state, which apparently we can’t do unless the feds pick up the tab, is something we could easily afford if we wanted to do it. For now, assuming we don’t get a state government that’s willing to do this, our best bet is to work towards a federal government that will do it, presumably after 2020. And hope like hell in the meantime that nothing goes horribly wrong.

Using one civil rights law to negate another

You have to give them credit for evil creativity, I guess.

A majority-black county in rural Georgia announced a plan last week to close seven of its nine polling places ahead of the November election, claiming the polls cannot continue to operate because they are not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The move sparked instant opposition from voting rights advocates, who have threatened legal action if Randolph County follows though with the plan. Activists are also scrambling to collect enough signatures to stop the effort before Friday, when the election board will make a final determination.

The racial implications of the closures have generated significant attention. The county is over 61 percent black, and one of the polling locations that would be shuttered serves a precinct where more than 95 percent of voters are African American. Had the U.S. Supreme Court not gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, the closures would most likely have been blocked by the Department of Justice.

But the method in which the county is justifying the closures has generated less attention. Republican lawmakers and election administrators in Randolph County are not the first to use the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), intended to protect the nation’s disabled communities, as a pretext to disenfranchise minority voters.

The good news is that the subsequent public outcry eventually caused county officials to cancel this plan. I make note of this for two reasons. One is that under the Obama administration, Harris County was sued for having voting locations that violated the ADA, with election observers being dispatched in 2016 to monitor the situation. The last update on the lawsuit I had was from 2017, and earlier this year the Trump administration announced there would be no observers this year. I have no idea where any of this stands now.

And two is that in a world where people with evil intentions are not running the place, there is a much better, fairer, and more equitable solution to this kind of problem, and that’s to take all reasonable steps to make these voting locations accessible to all. The federal government could allocate funds to facilitate this, or it could fund the whole damn thing if it wanted to. Frankly, given the various atrocities committed by Republicans nationwide in the name of making it harder for some people to vote, something like this should be part of a comprehensive program by Democrats when they regain control over government (please, please), along with an updated Voting Rights Act, an updated National Voter Registration Act, redistricting reform, a serious review and upgrade of the nation’s voting machines and elections security, and so on and so forth. We’re supposed to be a democracy, let’s act like it and make it easier for everyone who is eligible to participate in it.

We really need to replace our crappy old voting machines

This is embarrassing.

Local election administrators in Texas are eager to replace voting machines purchased more than a decade ago in time for the 2020 presidential election. Increasingly susceptible to malfunctions, upkeep for the aging machines can exceed $300,000 annually in the biggest counties. Election experts have also raised security concerns about the paperless electronic devices used in most of the state.

The little help Congress has offered comes in the form of recent funding that will be used for cyber updates and training, not voting machines. And state leaders have shown no interest in chipping in, even as scrutiny over the security of the country’s election systems ratchets up in the face of Russian attacks.

In 2017, budget writers in the Texas Legislature seemed lukewarm to the idea of replacing aging equipment. Legislation that would have created a state fund for new voting equipment died without getting a committee vote in the House. The bill received a late-session hearing during which one lawmaker on the panel, Representative Pat Fallon, R-Frisco, asked county officials to shorten their testimony because a college basketball championship game had just tipped off.

“I hope we don’t have to wait until a crisis, but we are walking on thin ice when it comes to the integrity of our voting machines,” said state Representative Celia Israel, an Austin Democrat and the sponsor of the 2017 legislation.

More than 200 of Texas’ 254 counties still need to replace their voting machines and it appears unlikely that all will be able to do so in time for the next presidential election. The full price tag, according to election officials, is around $350 million — and local officials are having to find inventive ways to cover the costs. Travis County, for example, is expected to announce the winner of a new voting machine contract this week and plans to sell local bonds to come up with the anticipated $15 million.

The situation has grown dire. Some counties are using equipment that’s no longer manufactured. Machine failures are growing more common and it’s becoming harder to find replacement parts. County workers often have to scour eBay and Amazon to locate bygone tech relics such as as Zip disks and flash drives compatible with older machines.

Yeah, ZIP drives. Remember them, from the 90s? If you are relying on this kind of technology today, You Are Doing It Wrong. There’s no excuse for this – even if one thinks the counties should pay for the upgrades themselves, the cost cited in that penultimate paragraph is something like 0.3% of the state’s annual expenditures. It would be super easy to solve this if we gave a shit, but clearly our Republican leaders do not. But hey, I’m sure nothing bad will ever happen.

LWV to look at Harris County election security

I look forward to seeing their results.

The League of Women Voters of the Houston Area plans to study the cybersecurity of Harris County’s election system, but the non-partisan group may not be able to gather all the information it wants.

The League, working with the non-profit civic-tech activist group Sketch City, hopes to finish the study and release recommendations by May 2018.

During an organizational meeting [last] Tuesday night at the Leonel Castillo Community Center, Sketch City founder Jeff Reichman said the group had received early cooperation from both the Harris County Clerk’s office, which administers elections, and the Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector, which handles voter registration.

Reichman said the group wants to study all aspects of the election process, which uses Hart InterCivic eSlate voting machines that are about 15 years old. He said they want to look into the documented vulnerabilities of the machines; how easily computers involved in the election can be physically accessed both in storage and while in use in elections; and what the procurement process is for buying new machines.

“We want to look into the best practices that anyone with access to sensitive information should follow,” Reichman said during Tuesday’s meeting.

There’s been a lot of debate about the security of our election systems, locally and nationally. Less discussed is the fact that our voting system is just old, at least in technological terms. The eSlate made its debut in Texas in the 2000 election and has been in use in Harris County since 2002, which is five years before the debut of the iPhone. One would think there have been some advances in the engineering since then. As such, even without this particular elephant in the room, we have needed to be thinking about what comes next for some time. If this is even a small step in that direction, I’m glad to see it. I’m not sure what it would take otherwise.

Hacking voting machines

I’m just going to leave this here.

Google and Apple invite hackers to find flaws in their code and offer hefty rewards to those who find them. It’s a common practice in the industry. The government’s done it too, with programs like “Hack the Pentagon.”

But opportunities to test how secure our voting machines are from hackers have been rare. Manufacturers like to keep the details of voting machines secret. And they don’t often provide machines for people to test.

That’s why hackers swarmed to the Voter Hacking Village at Defcon in Las Vegas. The massive hacker convention is split into “villages” based on themes such as lock picking, encryption, social engineering and, for the first time, voter machine hacking.

Defcon received more than 30 voting machines to play with, providing a rare opportunity for hackers to find the flaws in our democracy’s technology. (The organizers didn’t specify how many models the 30 units represented.) Voting technology was elevated into the political spotlight in 2016 as lawmakers raised concerns about Russian hacking and President Donald Trump’s road to the White House.

To be clear, there’s no evidence any votes were hacked during the 2016 presidential election. But there hasn’t been much research on the voting machines to see if it’s possible.

“The exposure of those devices to the people who do bug bounties or actually look at these kind of devices has been fairly limited,” said Brian Knopf, an internet of things security researcher for Neustar, a security analysis company. “And so Defcon is a great opportunity for those of us who hack hardware and firmware to look to these kind of devices and really answer that question, ‘Are they hackable?'”

After just about an hour and a half, the answer was an emphatic “yes.”

I don’t want to be alarmist. The one specific voting machine mentioned in the story is one that has been out of use since 2015, so it’s hard to say how real-world and prevalent some of this is. The problem is that there’s a lot of secrecy around voting machine technology, so while there are no known examples of systems being compromised, we mostly just have the assurances of the people in charge that there’s nothing to see here. There’s a lot of room to improve standards and transparency, in the name of promoting faith in the security of the system.

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.

More on the STAR Voting System

The Chron updates us on the latest in modern voting technology.

The drumbeat of election rigging and foreign hacking of voting machines have energized ongoing efforts to develop a new model of digital election equipment designed to produce instantly verifiable results and dual records for security.

Election experts say this emerging system, one of three publicly funded voting machine projects across the country, shows potential to help restore confidence in the country’s election infrastructure, most of which hasn’t been updated in more than a decade.

“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It’s taken years and years to get it done,” said Dana DeBeauvoir, the Travis County clerk and leader of the voting machine project. “Now that we’ve had this election, there’s renewed interest.”

A prototype of the system, dubbed STAR Vote, sits in an engineering lab at Rice University, and bidding is open for manufacturers who want to produce it wholesale. Similar efforts to innovate voting systems are in the works in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

“County clerks in these jurisdictions are the rock stars of running elections,” said Joe Kiniry, CEO of Free & Fair, an election systems supplier currently bidding on contracts to manufacture the designs of both Travis and Los Angeles counties. “If they have success in what they do, it will have, in my opinion, a massive impact on the whole U.S.”

Like any aging digital device, the voting machines are eventually bound to stumble, said Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. He pointed to Detroit, where the number of votes counted didn’t match the number of voters who signed in. And he noted that reports of machines flipping votes more likely result from aged touch screens than a conspiracy to rig the election.

Yet there is seldom space in county budgets to replace the machines, which cost usually between $3,000 and $5,000 each. The vast majority of electronic voting equipment was purchased with federal funds from the Help America Vote Act of 2002. Most money reached the states by 2004, and there’s no foreseeable second wave of federal aid.

“This is really an oncoming crisis,” said Norden, who interviewed more than 100 election officials for a 2015 report about aging voting equipment published by the Brennan center. “A lot of election officials have been unhappy with the choices that the major vendors are providing.”

[…]

STAR Vote runs automatic audits, comparing a statistical sample of the paper ballots with the digital records to verify results.

“The savings are just enormous over doing a recount,” Stark said.

While other systems allow for comparison of precinct-level data, STAR Vote can compare paper ballots with individual voters’ digital ballots, which are encrypted and posted online.

Officials could take a small sample of printed ballots and compare them with digital results to conclude with high confidence that election results were correct.

The system itself is also inexpensive, built with off-the-shelf tablet computers and printers, which Wallach said will cut the price down to half of the current norm. Advanced software makes up for the cheap hardware, designers said, and they plan to make the software open-source, meaning it is free to use and, unlike current systems, can be serviced by any provider without exclusive long-term contracts.

I’ve written about this before, and while I love the design of the STAR machine, I don’t have much hope of getting to vote on one any time soon. The political climate just doesn’t seem conducive to any effort to improve the voting experience, and the lip service we got from Greg Abbott back during the peak Trump-whining-about-rigged-elections period has surely gone down the memory hole. The one possible way in that I can see for these devices is their lower cost. At some point, enough of the current voting machines will become sufficiently inoperable that replacement will be needed, and a cheaper device ought to have an advantage. Let’s hope the process of getting a manufacturer in place goes smoothly.

(NB: “Wallach” is Rice professor Dan Wallach, who as I have noted before is a friend of mine.)

As long as we’re talking about improving our voting machines

Then this is what we should be talking about.

Dana DeBeauvoir

[Travis] County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir called Rice University computer science professor Dan Wallach, who has been poking holes in voting-machine security for years. He’s testified before Congress on the subject.

Now DeBeauvoir wanted him to design a new one.

“Wow,” he says. “That doesn’t happen very often.”

The last time voting technology went through a major design change was after the disastrous Florida recount in the 2000 presidential election. Confusion over badly designed and incompletely punched paper ballots threw the results into chaos.

In 2002, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, committing $4 billion to help localities buy new electronic voting machines.

“All of these machines, we understand now, are wildly insecure,” Wallach says. “Even though the vendors made claims that they were great, those claims have turned out to be false. And we’re now dealing with that problem.”

But replacing them costs money that many localities don’t have, and it’s not clear that Congress will pony up again.

So Wallach’s new system would have to be cheaper than what’s on the market now.

[…]

The system that the team of cybersecurity and usability experts came up with is called STAR-Vote, for secure, transparent, auditable and reliable.

It has two parts: A kiosk containing an off-the-shelf tablet computer and a standard inkjet printer, plus a metal ballot box with a built-in scanner.

Off-the-shelf parts keep the cost down and can be easily sourced and replaced. Wallach says the metal box costs more than all the electronic components inside it. The whole system should cost half or less what current machines do, which cost about $3,000 each.

Voters make their selections on the touchscreen tablet, which is kept off the internet and stripped of all software (and potential vulnerabilities) except the voting application.

State-of-the-art cryptography protects the integrity of the vote. But it’s not the only safeguard. Hard copy remains one of the most secure ways to cast a ballot.

“The crypto can do some really great tricks,” Wallach says. “But if you don’t trust the cryptography, that’s OK. Because we also have printed paper ballots that go into a box.”

Voters can see who the computer says they chose. The vote is only cast when the voter puts it in the ballot box.

And if there is any question about the electronic votes, the paper ballots are the backup.

This is nothing new – I wrote about it in July of 2014, and Wallach’s team made a presentation about STAR-Vote in August of 2013. The point is that this system, which is both more secure than what we have now while also being less expensive, could be in place for the 2018 election if we really wanted it to be. Given the lip service some Republicans like Greg Abbott are giving to election integrity, this is totally doable. You will know by what happens in the 2017 legislative session whether Abbott et al meant any of it or not.

(Disclaimer: As noted before, Dan Wallach is a friend of mine.)

Wait, who supports paper ballots now?

I have three things to say about this.

Following repeated allegations by Republican Donald Trump that the election may be rigged to ensure a win for Democrat Hillary Clinton, Texas lawmakers are actively considering ways to boost confidence in the state’s elections during next year’s legislative session.

Among the ideas drawing interest: adding paper trail backups to thousands of electronic voting machines.

The idea was brought up in a tweet Saturday by Gov. Greg Abbott.

“That’s a great idea & we are considering it as an election reform measure. Election integrity is essential,” Abbott tweeted in response to a voter who tweeted that he wanted printed proof of how he cast his ballot.

Over the last decade, several Texas lawmakers have filed bills to require paper trails on electronic voting machine. The proposals often include adding a printer in a sealed case to the state’s electronic voting machines so voters could check their votes against the receipt. The paper trail could be consulted in the event of a recount.

During the 2007 legislative session, interest in the idea stalled following estimates that adding the printers to all of the state’s voting machines could cost $40 to 50 million, according to a Fort Worth Star-Telegram article from the time.

One of the 2007 bills was authored by then-state Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham. Now a state senator, she said she may re-introduce her previous legislation.

“I agree with Governor Abbott’s call for election reform,” Kolkhorst said Tuesday in an emailed statement. “I have personally spoken with his office about re-introducing my legislation from 2007 to strengthen ballot integrity by requiring a paper record be printed of a person’s vote on an electronic voting machine. Texans have the right to inspect and verify that their vote was accurately recorded.”

[…]

The move toward election reform comes amid an election season in which Texans have expressed concerns about election rigging and voter fraud. Last week, Trump highlighted reports of voting machines in Texas changing votes for president from voters casting straight-ticket ballots. Those reports, however, have been largely debunked by election officials, who have stated that alleged instances of “vote flipping” were the result of user error.

1. I’m old enough to remember when suspicion of electronic voting machines and faith that only paper ballots could ensure the integrity of our electoral system was a shibboleth on the left, largely having to do with dire conspiracy theories about the Diebold corporation and vote counting in Ohio in 2004. Here’s a little blast from the past for those of you who have blocked this out or weren’t there for it the first time. Who knew that a sociopathic sore-losing narcissist could spark such an interest in voting machine integrity among Republicans? For that matter, who knew that so many Republican voters could be that suspicious of the electoral process in a state whose elections they have been dominating for over 20 years? Clearly, all these Republican County Clerks and Republican-appointed elections administrators can’t be trusted.

2. Travis County has already done a lot of the heavy lifting on building a better mousetrap. Maybe we should just emulate their work and save us all a bunch of time and effort.

3. Putting aside the question of paper ballots for a moment, perhaps we should take a moment and contemplate the fact that the electronic voting machines we use now are all a decade or more old, and are generally past their recommended lifespan. If we do nothing else, spending a few bucks to upgrade and replace our current hardware would be an excellent investment.

Dan Wallach: The case for not letting everybody vote by mail

You know who Dan Wallach is by now. Voting systems and security are in his wheelhouse, and when he sent this to me in response to this, I was happy to queue it up.

vote-button

Vote by mail (VBM) is cheaper! It’s more enfranchising! Take your time and do it right! Yes, indeed, and why not even do it over the Internet! Sigh. But what proponents of VBM seem to miss in these arguments in that voting is not the same as doing your taxes. It’s not the same as buying stuff from Amazon. Why? Because voting fraud happens. Voting fraud has a long history. You name the voting technology, and there are people who try to use it to influence the outcome of elections.

Let’s take a trip in the Wayback Machine to the time before the modern “Australian” secret ballot. Voters would get colorfully printed “party slates”, often from their partisan newspapers, and would take them to the polls to deposit in the ballot box. (Check out the pretty pictures!) Why did we switch to having the state doing the printing and having voters fill those ballots out in a private booth? To eliminate bribery and coercion! This transition was even connected with the women’s suffrage movement, since the women at the time were apparently less interested than the manly men in putting up with a partisan gauntlet between the street and the ballot box. (See this NPR interview with Jill Lepore for lots of fun details.)

Okay, so secret ballots are a good thing, but they only work when the voter cannot prove how they voted, even if they want to. That’s why you’re not supposed to have your smartphone out when you’re voting, because you can make a video of your whole interaction with the machine. That’s why you vote alone, without assistance, because your “assistant” could then monitor your every move. Yes, “assisting” voters is a prominent mode of voter fraud, especially for the elderly. (See this article about the history of voter fraud in Chicago for some details.) That articled also gets into my problem with absentee / VBM balloting:

Joe Novak, a longtime Chicago political operative who knew the intimate details of the election system, explained in 2002 that election fraud still worked the way it had for years. “Precinct captains still like to control the vote by pushing absentees.” The captain goes to a retirement center or other places where the elderly gather and gets a signed statement from a voter that they can’t make it to the polls on Election Day. The captain can tell the voter how to vote. The idea is “Captains like to be ranked No. 1” in their ward organization. Alderman Joseph Moore from the Forty-Ninth Ward added, “The captain will offer to take (a completed absentee ballot) downtown for you.”  “Until they tightened the rules a few years ago,” Moore said, “it was common to see captains bringing in buckets full of ballots.”

A similar instructive example is the election of “Landslide” Lyndon B Johnson for the U.S. Senate in 1948 (background article, academic discussion). Texas, at the time, was largely controlled by the Democratic Party, so the Democratic Primary election was to be decisive for who would win the Senate seat, much like the Republican Primary is today. The 1948 primary went to a runoff between Johnson and former Texas Governor Coke Stevenson, Johnson defeated Stevenson by an “87-vote landslide.” Much attention has focused on ballot stuffing in Jim Wells County’s infamous “Box 13,” but ballot box stuffing, among other fraudulent behavior, was apparently the norm across the state. Counties were allowed to report “revisions” to their tallies in the week following the election, allowing local party bosses to continuously adjust their vote totals to assist their preferred candidate.

Let’s get back to VBM. Yes, it’s absolutely easier to defraud an election where voters are using VBM. In Texas today, if you want to vote absentee, you must either be over 65, or have one of a small set of valid reasons. If we expanded this to the general population, would we have more voter fraud? Without a doubt. Sure, VBM proponents like to talk about the extent to which they verify signatures on envelopes, but they cannot possibly hope to combat elderly vote fraud, never mind undo family influence. VBM fundamentally enables fraud.

Okay, but what about those electronic voting machines? They certainly have their own serious problems. Here’s a 93 page report I co-authored as part of California’s 2007 “Top to Bottom Report” on the Hart InterCivic eSlate. Our conclusion then was that there were unacceptable security flaws in the design of the eSlate and every other voting system we analyzed. So far as I can tell, Hart InterCivic hasn’t meaningfully changed anything since then. We’re still voting on the same poorly engineered machines here in Harris County today. But are these weaknesses being actively exploited? I don’t know, and neither does anybody else.

What would I recommend to replace our aging and breaking voting systems? I was invited by Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir and her team to help design something new, from scratch, that might better meet the needs of Travis County and others. Our design, called STAR-Vote (secure, transparent, auditable, reliable), uses state of the art cryptographic and statistical auditing techniques that can help voters prove their votes were counted correctly or prove they were defrauded (yet not be able to prove to a third party how they voted). STAR has printed paper ballots, so tampered software can’t mess with the final tallies without detection. And STAR is designed to use off-the-shelf commodity computer hardware rather than the overpriced proprietary devices being sold by the voting systems industry. Where does STAR stand today? We’ve got a great design. We have prototype implementations here at Rice, today, where we’re running usability tests. Ultimately, we need to get the funding together to professionally build and maintain the software, and that’s as much a political challenge as anything technical. Once the software’s done, the incremental cost of rolling out new hardware would be something like a third of the cost of what the voting machine industry wants to charge, and we haven’t even begun to talk about the ongoing service contract savings. (The exact business model for STAR is very much dependent on its funding situation. Legally, any company could take our design, implement it, and sell it, yet none have; sadly, some voting system vendors have inappropriately adopted similar technical lingo while shipping products without any of the desirable security properties.)

Yeah, but what about voter turnout? If your goal is to increase voter turnout, then there are plenty of ways to make that happen. 22 countries make voting mandatory. If you want something a little less draconian, might I suggest an “open primary” as California has done? That would better enfranchise “independent” voters who don’t want to be forced to vote in one party or the other’s primary. Or how about compact districts, so we can have more competitive races? Want something less disruptive? Okay, how about Election Day vote centers? In Travis County today, you can go to any polling place in the county, on Election Day, and you get to vote on your particular ballot. Want to vote near your work? No problem. Travis County adopted this to work around a nightmarish redistricting that would have otherwise resulted in large numbers of voters going to the wrong polling places, but you can see how it could add convenience for everybody.

My colleague, Bob Stein, likes to quip that all voters have one thing in common: they know who they want to vote for. If you want to increase turnout, I’m all for it, but if that’s truly the goal, then let’s not weaken our protections against voting fraud.

The case for letting everyone vote by mail

The Washington Monthly in an article written by a former Secretary of State for Oregon, lays it out.

vote-button

Presidential elections still attract a majority of America’s voters. For all other elections, however, democracy is mostly a spectator sport. In the 2014 midterms, just 83 million registered voters cast ballots—a nosedive of almost 10 million from 2010’s already anemic levels. Almost 110 million registered voters were no-shows—for a registered voter turnout rate of just 44 percent. Add another 40 million eligible but unregistered citizens, and the rate was just 36 percent.

Turnout in primary nomination contests is even lower—for instance, just 18 percent of registered voters participated in the 2012 cycle. This is a major factor pulling both parties, but especially the GOP, to the extremes, and it should be especially worrisome to Republican and Democratic moderates and the 42 percent of Americans who now identify as “none of the above.” An estimated 90 percent of the nation’s 435 congressional seats and 7,383 state legislative seats are noncompetitive between the major parties. Win the dominant party primary, and the November election is a mere formality.

Fiscal conservatives, too, have reason to worry about low voter turnout, if for no other reason than the costs that taxpayers in many states are incurring to ameliorate it, such as keeping polls open longer. Voting as traditionally done—with 110,000 polling stations and 800,000 poll workers—is expensive. Just to upgrade or replace the hundreds of thousands of aging touchscreen voting machines could easily cost states and localities $2 billion in the next decade.

Low voter turnout, however, should really trouble progressives, because the voters who don’t show up at the polls (including the ones who vote in presidential years but not in off years) are disproportionately Democratic in their orientation and propensity.

Democrats and their progressive allies aren’t bereft of ideas to boost voter participation. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are both championing promising reforms, such as automatically registering all American citizens based on driver’s licenses or birth records. But no other solution holds anywhere near the potential to boost actual voter turnout. Evidence from Oregon, Colorado, and Washington suggests that if other states adopted universal vote by mail (UVBM), they could increase their registered voter turnout in midterm elections by 10 to 15 percent. Even more dramatically, they could double or triple their primary election turnout, which would almost certainly reduce the inordinate influence of take-no-prisoners ideologues. (See “Can Vote by Mail Reduce Partisan Extremism?”)

Universal vote by mail has many other virtues, too. Those odious photo ID laws? Rendered moot; you don’t need a voter ID to fill out a ballot at your own kitchen table. Long polling place lines? How about no lines, period—and no way for elected officials to manufacture them by (whoops!) providing too few polling places in certain neighborhoods?

Universal vote by mail has also proven to be at least as secure from fraud—and arguably more so—as traditional voting at polls. Election officials check each voter’s signature on the ballot return envelope, matching it against the voter registration card before the ballot is counted. (Since signatures can change, voters still have time to update their registration cards—and qualify their ballots—before results are officially certified.)

Universal vote by mail has the additional advantage of being less costly to taxpayers than the traditional method. Beginning in 2000, Oregon taxpayers started saving $3 million per election cycle. Or consider California’s San Diego County, where election officials found that in a 2013 special election for mayor the direct cost of operating their polling places—$360,000, for 32 percent of votes cast—far exceeded that of the “mailed out” portion—$84,000, for 68 percent of votes cast.

[…]

Would expanding UVBM to other states help Democrats more than Republicans? The weight of the evidence certainly suggests so. But that Democratic advantage, such as it is, won’t necessarily last forever. Voter preferences change over time as generations age. A decade ago, for instance, older voters leaned Democratic, and as recently as the 1980s most younger voters supported the GOP.

Moreover, partisan advantage shouldn’t matter at all if UVBM will help democracy and give voters far more ability to cast an informed and considered ballot, on their schedules. How many of us, voting at a traditional polling place, have felt the pressure to rush through the process, picking candidates, especially down-ballot ones, almost at random? Voting by mail, at your kitchen or dining room table, is unhurried. You can use the Internet to learn more about candidates’ policy positions and views, or look for newspaper editorials. You can reach out to knowledgeable relatives, friends, and colleagues who might know more than you do about a particular race. The result is more considered and intelligent voting.

Universal vote by mail can also counter the outsized influence of extreme ideologues who thrive in the “micro-turnout” world of current party primary elections. Official voter statistics our PSU team has compiled from all fifty states’ primaries show that just 35 million voters cast primary ballots during the 2012 election cycle—while 155 million already-registered voters didn’t. That’s an overall registered voter turnout rate of 18 percent. Separate research involving complete voter files for fifteen 2014 primary states shows the median age of those voting at about sixty-two, compared to the median age of forty-six for registered voters in those states.

If 10 or 12 percent of registered voters in an average-turnout state choose to vote in the dominant party’s primary, the electoral math is pretty clear: win just 5 or 6 percent of your constituents’ votes in a competitive race, in the right primary, and you can pop the champagne corks. But when more than 50 percent of eligible Republicans and Democrats vote in primary elections—Oregon’s track record since 2000—each party’s more moderate voters have a far greater opportunity to be heard.

The main attraction for elected officials is that UVBM would save money. When you add in the fact that at some point every county in Texas is going to have to replace its increasingly old and outdated electronic voting machines, the case becomes clearer. Not that anyone expects this to happen in Texas, where the extremism is a feature and not a bug, but it’s worth pointing out and getting someone on board for filing a bill to this effect in 2017. Martin Longman has more.

Our obsolete voting machines

From the Brennan Center:

Executive Summary

In January 2014, the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration (PCEA) issued a stern warning that should be of grave concern to all Americans: There is an “impending crisis … from the widespread wearing out of voting machines purchased a decade ago. … Jurisdictions do not have the money to purchase new machines, and legal and market constraints prevent the development of machines they would want even if they had funds.”

This report, nearly two years later, documents in detail the extent of the problem and the steps we must take in the coming years to address it. Over the past 10 months, the Brennan Center surveyed more than 100 specialists familiar with voting technology, including voting machine vendors, independent technology experts, and election officials in all 50 states. In addition, we reviewed scores of public documents to quantify in greater detail the extent of the crisis. We explore the current challenge in three parts: (1) the danger, looking at the age of machines around the country relative to their expected lifespans and the problems that we can expect; (2) the new technologies that can help solve the problem going forward; and (3) recommended solutions to the impending crisis.

Among our key findings:

  • Unlike voting machines used in past eras, today’s systems were not designed to last for decades. In part this is due to the pace of technological change. No one expects a laptop to last for 10 years. And although today’s machines debuted at the beginning of this century, many were designed and engineered in the 1990s.
  • While it is impossible to say how long any particular machine will last, experts agree that for those purchased since 2000, the expected lifespan for the core components of electronic voting machines is between 10 and 20 years, and for most systems it is probably closer to 10 than 20.
    • The majority of machines in use today are either perilously close to or exceed these estimates. Forty-three states are using some machines that will be at least 10 years old in 2016. In most of these states, the majority of election districts are using machines that are at least 10 years old.
    • In 14 states, machines will be 15 or more years old.
    • Nearly every state is using some machines that are no longer manufactured and many election officials struggle to find replacement parts.
  • The longer we delay purchasing new equipment, the more problems we risk.
    • The biggest risk is increased failures and crashes, which can lead to long lines and lost votes.
    • Older machines can also have serious security and reliability flaws that are unacceptable today. For example, Virginia recently decertified a voting system used in 24 percent of precincts after finding that an external party could access the machine’s wireless features to “record voting data or inject malicious data.
    • Smaller problems can also shake public confidence. Several election officials mentioned “flipped votes” on touch screen machines, where a voter touches the name of one candidate, but the machine registers it as a selection for another.
  • Election officials who believe they need to buy new machines do not have sufficient resources.
    • Election jurisdictions in at least 31 states want to purchase new voting machines in the next five years. Officials from 22 of these states said they did not know where they would get the money to pay for them.
    • Based upon recent contracts and assessments provided by election officials, the Brennan Center estimates the initial national cost of replacing equipment over the next few yearscould exceed $1 billion, though that could be partially offset by lower operating costs and better contracts than are currently used in many jurisdictions.
    • As election jurisdictions diverge in how they respond to the crisis, we see an increasing divide among, and even within, states in the ability to ensure elections can be conducted without system failures and disruption.
    • A preliminary analysis by the Brennan Center lends support to the concern expressed by some officials that without federal or state funding, wealthier counties will replace aging machines, while poorer counties will be forced to use them far longer than they should.

These are troubling findings, but our study also provides hope for the future. Technology has changed dramatically in the last decade, offering the possibility of machines that are more reliable, more usable, and less expensive. Several recent innovations — often driven by election officials who have worked with vendors, academics, and voters — could point the way to more affordable and flexible 21st century machines. While such advances may help us in future years, they will not resolve today’s crisis. There is no escaping the immediate need to plan and set aside sufficient funds to buy new machines.

See here for the press release, and here for the full report. This is from a couple of months ago, and I’ve had it in my queue since then, but as we’re about to have a couple of maximal-turnout elections this year, it seemed like a good time to bring this up. Travis County is doing what it can to pioneer newer, better, and more secure voting machines, but it’s hard to imagine the rest of the state following their lead. We might spend $8 million defending an unconstitutional voter ID law, but we won’t spend a dime on new voting machines until we absolutely have to. Which most likely means once there’s been a proven catastrophe of some kind. Such a catastrophe need not happen in Texas – this is a national problem – but heaven help us if it happens in next year’s Presidential election. I don’t even want to think about the possibilities there. Link via Daily Kos.

How many candidates are too many?

The Rivard Report brings up a point I hadn’t considered before.

Candidates or their representatives arrived at City Council chambers Monday morning to draw lots to determine the order of name placement on the ballot. As candidates waited in the audience, the room seemed to be filled with equal parts anticipation and dread. It doesn’t matter much if you are first, second or even third in a three-person race. Three our four names fit easily enough on a single screen of a voting machine.

But there are 14 people running for mayor, and in an informal street poll I conducted downtown Monday, I was unable to find a single person who could name six candidates. Quite a few people named three, several named four, a few named five and none could name six. Four of the candidates are running visible campaigns with yard signs, frequent public appearances, organized block walking events and participating in public forums.

But what about voters who won’t recognize the names of Ivy R. Taylor, Mike Villarreal, Leticia Van de Putte or Tommy Adkisson? The four frontrunners are seasoned officeholders who have run multiple campaigns and appeared on multiple ballots. But they face 10 other candidates, some of whom have filed for office before but none of whom have much name recognition or a record of holding elective office. I’m talking about Paul Martinez, Douglas Emmett, Michael “Commander” Idrogo, Raymond Zavala, Rhett Rosenquest Smith, Julie Iris “MamaBexar” Oldham, Cynthia Cavazos, Gerard Ponce, Pogo Mochello Reese, and Cynthia Brehm.

The voting machines are going to have as hard a time as the voters with the mayor’s race. There is simply no way to list all 14 names on a single computer screen, and I wonder if even two screens will prove sufficient. It’s even more of a challenge when two of the candidates feature “Commander” and “MamaBexar,” nicknames that have to be listed.

If you are a candidate listed on the second screen, you have to wonder: How many people will think the contest is only between the candidates listed on the first screen and cast their vote before they get to the next screen? The computer allows a voter to reverse a decision and also prompts a voter to review his or her choices before pressing “VOTE,” but that’s small comfort to a second page candidate.

Here’s the Bexar County Elections webapge on their voting system. The video didn’t load for me, and the ES&S Flash Demonstration links are broken, but the picture at the bottom gives some idea of what they use. Here in Houston, we’ve not had a 14-candidate race in recent years that I can recall – there were 19 candidates in the January 1995 special election for Council At Large #4 – but we did have ten for At Large #2 in 2011 and twelve for District D in 2013. I’m pretty sure that Harris County’s eSlate machines were able to list everyone on a single page. At least, I don’t recall hearing anything about the candidate list spanning multiple pages. If San Antonio is like Houston, then Mayor will be the first race on the ballot. If the voting machines in Bexar County really can’t fit 14 names onto one page, then that seems like a serious flaw with them. Is this a real concern? I’m having a hard time wrapping my mind around it.

This is also an opportunity for me to bring up one of my favorite hobbyhorses, which is that the draw for ballot position is ridiculous. I still can’t understand why an electronic voting machine system can’t be programmed to randomize ballot order for each race with multiple candidates and each voter. I’m sure it would take a change to state law to allow that – or better yet, require it – and I know that there would still need to be a draw for candidate order on mail ballots, but still. This seems like such a simple fix to a problem that vexes people in every single non-partisan election. Can we please do something about it?

Paper ballots make a comeback

From the Everything Old Is New Again department:

States have abandoned electronic voting machines in droves, ensuring that most voters will be casting their ballots by hand on Election Day.

With many electronic voting machines more than a decade old, and states lacking the funding to repair or replace them, officials have opted to return to the pencil-and-paper voting that the new technology was supposed to replace.

Nearly 70 percent of voters will be casting ballots by hand on Tuesday, according to Pamela Smith, president of election watchdog Verified Voting.
“Paper, even though it sounds kind of old school, it actually has properties that serve the elections really well,” Smith said.

It’s an outcome few would have predicted after the 2000 election, when the battle over “hanging chads” in the Florida recount spurred a massive, $3 billion federal investment in electronic voting machines.

States at the time ditched punch cards and levers in favor of touch screens and ballot-scanners, with the perennial battleground state of Ohio spending $115 million alone on upgrades.

Smith said the mid-2000s might go down as the “heyday” of electronic voting.

Since then, states have failed to maintain the machines, partly due to budget shortfalls.

“There is simply no money to replace them,” said Michael Shamos, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University who has examined computerized voting systems in six states.

The lack of spending on the machines is a major problem because the electronic equipment wears out quickly. Smith recalled sitting in a meeting with Missouri election officials in 2012, where they complained 25 percent of their equipment had malfunctioned in preelection testing.

“You’re dealing with voting machines that are more than a decade old,” Smith said.

Roughly half of the states that significantly adopted electronic voting following the cash influx have started to move toward paper.

[…]

Shamos said he expects the move back to paper ballots to continue, unless there’s a high-profile crisis similar to the 2000 election.

Still, he predicted the drumbeat for Internet and mobile voting will grow.

“Eventually [a generation is] going to have the thought that it’s idiotic for me not to be able to vote using my cell phone,” Shamos said.

Then all bets are off.

No doubt. I can think of plenty of reasons for this, beyond the lack of money for new machines. There are the well-known security issues and accompanying mistrust of electronic voting machines, mostly coming from my side of the aisle. Some local officials are working on that, but the money issue is likely to be a formidable hurdle. Beyond that, there is the success that some states have had with voting by mail, plus the success we saw here in Texas in pushing absentee ballots. They’re convenient, they allow one to take one’s time, and they don’t require a photo ID. I have to wonder what the politics of expanding access to mail ballots would look like in the Lege this year, especially if a Democrat filed a bill to enable it. Might be worth watching.

Mail ballots aren’t perfect – people who move frequently or who aren’t particularly fastidious about keeping track of their incoming mail may find them inconvenient – and it’s hard to see this as a step forward, even if it might help boost turnout. I think Professor Shamos is exactly right about how future generations will view a return to paper ballots. But until the killer voting app gets developed, this may be our best bet. Link via Ed Kilgore.