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July 14th, 2014:

Travis County pursues new voting machines

Very, very interesting.

Dana DeBeauvoir

With the nation facing what a January government report described as an “impending crisis” in voting technology, officials in Travis County are taking matters into their own hands by seeking to create a unique, next-generation system of voting machines.

The efforts put Travis County, along with Los Angeles County in California, at the cutting edge of a race against time to create an alternative voting technology system.

The new machines would have voters use off-the-shelf electronic equipment like tablets, but also provide them with receipts and printed ballots to allow for easier auditing. The development and implementation process won’t be finished in time for the 2016 elections, though officials hope to have the system ready by the 2018 gubernatorial race.

[…]

Some election administrators have said the status quo will likely fall apart within a few years. Across the country, “it’s all just a guessing game at this point: How long can we last?” said Dana DeBeauvoir, the Travis County clerk.

Three years ago, DeBeauvoir decided that something had to change. “I said, ‘Okay, I’m fed up. I’m going to design my own system.’” Part of her frustration stemmed from complaints lodged against the county that she felt blamed officials for things beyond their control. Travis County voters filed a lawsuit in 2006 alleging that electronic voting machines lacked reliability and security. The case was dismissed by the Texas Supreme Court in 2011.

After deciding to create a new system, DeBeauvoir gathered a citizens’ study group, and then a panoply of experts, to iron out the details.

The group is now close to finishing the design of a prototype known as the STAR (Security, Transparency, Auditability and Reliability) Voting System. The county intends to issue a request for proposals within a couple of months and hopes to select a winning bid by the end of the year, DeBeauvoir said.

[…]

The designs already posted on the Travis County clerk’s website lay out a multi-step process: A voter checks in, signs a roster and receives a ticket. Then, she gives the ticket to a poll worker to get a unique ballot code from a ballot control station, which sends information to a voting device. At the device, she makes her choices, prints out a completed ballot and deposits it in a ballot box with a scanner. She also receives a receipt that allows her to check online the next day to ensure the ballot was counted.

All the devices communicate with each other to update and confirm data. To ensure security, the system employs cryptography that “has never been done before” in voting technology, DeBeauvoir said.

The printed paper ballot is particularly crucial, as it addresses one of the principal criticisms of the existing electronic systems. The touchscreen machines common in many counties lack “a paper trail that actually captures the intent of the voter so that you can audit the machines,” said Alex Russell, a University of Connecticut professor of computer science and mathematics and faculty member at the school’s Center for Voting Technology Research. During recounts, auditors can only double-check what the machines say, without any way to verify that the machines reflect voters’ choices.

The presentation is here. It’s pretty technical in places, but the main gist of it is easy to understand and well-summarized by the Trib story. There’s an accompanying video of the presentation on this page, with the presenter being Rice University computer science prof Dan Wallach, who has been studying this stuff for years. Other materials are here on the Travis County Clerk website.

As noted, the STAR-Vote collaboration is close to issuing an RFP for this. One key requirement for the hardware will be sufficient battery life – Election Day and some early voting days last for 12 hours, so your voting machines will need to do so as well. The collaboration will be approaching other counties to participate, which will allow for cost-sharing while making the RFP more attractive to vendors since there would be more potential customers for their proposed devices. I need to check and see if Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart has any interest in this. Our eSlate machines are as old and outdated as Travis County’s are, after all. One other potential hurdle is that this idea is very new and contains aspects that are not addressed by existing federal laws, so either the laws will need to be updated (as if Congress is capable of doing that) or waivers will need to be obtained. The latter ought to be doable, but as with anything new and unprecedented you never know what potholes may exist in the pathway. Be that as it may, this is a thorough and thoughtful design that addresses all kinds of concerns and would put electronic voting machines on a much more sustainable path. I look forward to seeing how the RFP process goes. What do you think about this?

Palau catches a little heat for hiring John Bradley

Hilarious.

The president of Palau has defended appointing a US lawyer who left his previous role as Texas county prosecutor amid controversy over an innocent man who spent almost 25 years behind bars.

President Tommy Remengesau confirmed former Williamson County district attorney John Bradley would take up a position as assistant attorney general in the tiny Pacific nation later this month.

[…]

Remengesau said Bradley acknowledged he was wrong to block the DNA testing and “is painfully aware that his actions kept an innocent man locked up for longer than he should have been”.

But he said Bradley deserved a second chance and was seeking it in the island nation of 22,000 people, which is best known for its spectacular diving sites.

“Mr. Bradley says that the Morton case has changed him as a person and has made him a more balanced, fair, and humble prosecutor,” Remengesau said in a statement.

He said Bradley had more than 25 years of prosecution experience and had never been found to have violated any law or ethical rule over the Morton case.

“The Republic hired Mr. Bradley because our nation needs experienced and skilled prosecutors to help keep our community safe Mr. Bradley fits that bill,” he said.

See here for the background. Like Grits, who found this story, I don’t buy Bradley’s claims that he’s a changed man. As noted in that previous post, he has made claims to that effect before, but so far has not backed them up with action. I hope, for his sake but more importantly for the sake of the people of Palau, that he’s sincere this time. I’d nonetheless advise President Remengesau to keep a close watch on him.

The Trib on the AG race

What do you do when you have an ethically compromised candidate on your ticket? Thank your lucky stars that you’re the majority party and hope like hell the challenger can’t get any traction.

Sen. Ken Paxton

A political candidate’s troubles are supposed to be a gold mine for the opposition, but that has not been the case with state Sen. Ken Paxton, the Republican nominee for attorney general.

His easy win in the Republican primary runoff in May was either a bafflement or a relief, depending on whether you were rooting for Paxton or his rival, state Rep. Dan Branch, of Dallas.

For Branch, it looked like a perfect setup. He’s a veteran legislator, a partner in a well-known Texas law firm, a member of the establishment.

And Paxton was in trouble.

The job in question is attorney general, the functional head of the state’s in-house law firm. Candidates like to talk about it as the top law enforcement position in the state — a bit of a stretch, since most criminal cases fall to local district and county attorneys, but a useful and effective exaggeration in a campaign.

Paxton committed a foul by failing to tell his clients and the State Securities Board about his relationship with a securities investment adviser. He looked into it, admitted the wrongdoing, amended some reports and paid a fine, then left Branch, who hoped to benefit from the revelations and admissions, in the dust. Branch received 36.6 percent of the vote to Paxton’s 63.4 percent.

That result was a vindication. Republican voters ignored the blot on Paxton’s résumé and looked instead to his conservative credentials, including a near endorsement from U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. Ideology trumped biography, and it will take some new twist to get voters to reconsider.

Now Sam Houston, the Democratic nominee (no relation to the 19th-century soldier and politician), lies in wait. He starts from a weaker position, with less money, no experience in state office and no natural political base. It makes sense that Paxton, in a competitive primary and runoff, had to raise money and Houston did not. Experience is a mixed bag at a time when voters find incumbency suspect.

This time, the Democrats are trying to stir the pot, suggesting that prosecutors are looking at Paxton’s file and could act at any time. They are hoping to succeed where Branch failed, but an investigation or an indictment — especially in Travis County, that blue Democratic smudge on the bright red Republican map of Texas — could bounce the wrong way.

Those suggestions come from the Lone Star Project, which sent out this email last week with those claims. Among other things, they say that emissaries for House Speaker Joe Straus have met with Travis County prosecutors to urge quick action against Paxton. I’ve got to say, I find this all highly dubious. For one thing, it’s not clear that any criminal laws were broken by Paxton – the original story gave no indication that there was something for a DA’s office to look into. Paxton’s already received a slap on the wrist from the Texas State Securities Board, and again it seemed like that’s all the action there was going to be at the state level. There’s still the matter of the SEC complaint that was filed against Paxton. That could certainly turn into something, though I’m sure Paxton and his buddies would be just as happy to run against the evil federal government trying to persecute him as they would be running against the evil Travis County DA’s office. Whether that would work for him or not I couldn’t say, but it’s certainly a possibility.

Strategy-wise, to me the best tactic is to raise enough money for Sam Houston for him to run ads featuring these quotes from that same email the LPS sent out:

If that draws out Dan Branch to denounce Houston for implying that he now opposes Paxton’s November candidacy, that’s fine. I seriously doubt the publicity would be anything but a net positive for Houston. One million dollars is enough to run a week’s worth of TV ads statewide. Surely that’s not too much to ask for. This accompanying story on Houston quotes Republican operative Matt Mackowiak saying that $5 to $10 million is needed for “first-rate, truly competitive” race for attorney general. That would be ideal, sure, but give him enough for a week’s worth of ads plus some faith in the outrage machine driving some earned media of it, and I’d take my chances.

Studemont Junction

Swamplot has an update and some pictures from the to-be-redeveloped Grocer’s Supply truck lot near Studemont and I-10, basically on the north doorstep of my neighborhood.

SIGNS ARE UP at the soon-to-be-former Grocers Supply distribution center across Studemont from Kroger just south of I-10 announcing Studemont Junction, the name meant to bring some . . . uh, conjunction to the odd-shaped 15-acre food-storage facility Capcor Partners bought late last year. To judge from the proposed site plan for the project, that’ll be quite a task.

Developers plan to rope in (beginning at the northern end of the property) some sort of fast-food drive-thru, a bank (with its own drive-thru in back), and enough retail operations to fill a couple of “pad site” retail boxes and a more conventional broken-L shopping center on the site, each structure surrounded by its own dedicated rows of parking. Later, Capcor’s partner Kaplan Management plans to build a 400-unit apartment complex on the western end of the site.

According to the marketing copy on the leasing broker’s website, this multifamily structure, bounded by a small railyard on its south, will “reinforce the urban character of the site and will encourage heavy pedestrian activity along the corridor.” Residents will be able to get to the new complex’s front door from Studemont St. either by wending their way through the retail parking lot or by driving along a proposed new extension of Summer St. past Olivewood Cemetery to a circular drive at Wichman St.

The developer’s webpage for this is here; I encourage you to click the links under “Downloads” to see how they envision things. The comments on the Swamplot post are always useful to read – reaction is more negative than positive, due mostly to the size of the parking lot and the general feeling that this stretch of land near I-10 between Yale and Taylor is being turned into East Katy. My reaction can be summed up thusly – it’s hardly an urbanist’s dream, but given the constraints of that particular property, what did you expect? As I said before, what I really want to see out of this is an improved sidewalk along Studemont/Studewood, all the way from Washington to White Oak, and better bike access, which a couple of commenters on my post say will be part of the Bayou Greenways 2020 plan, then I’ll be happy. Basically, don’t do anything that will later be an impediment for future developers in this area or the city to improve mobility in all forms. I hope that’s not too much to ask.