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January 28th, 2021:

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the new machines may provide faster election results, as votes can only be tallied under the current system using an outdated computer processing software with slower processing speeds than what is widely available today.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.

That new Harris County vaccine signup page sure is popular

If you didn’t get through on Day One, keep trying.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

More than 49,000 people have managed to get onto Harris County’s new COVID-19 vaccination wait list Tuesday despite technical issues that diminished access for some to the county’s website.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s office said 49,287 people were able to sign up as of 4:30 p.m.

Health officials said there has been an “overwhelming amount of people” trying to use the website at ReadyHarris.org.

“It’s down. It’s been down. We have had it crash several times,” said Martha Marquez, a spokesperson for Harris County Public Health said earlier Tuesday. “I know that, as we speak, they’re working on it.”

See here for the background. I assume this was mostly a first-day crush, but 49,000 people is roughly one percent of the Harris County population, so there could be quite a few more busy days ahead. I also assume that they’ll be able to scale the site up as needed, which in today’s world should be easy enough to do. In the immediate term, lack of vaccine supply is a looming problem, but that should be addressed in the slightly longer term. Has anyone tried this yet? How’d you do?

Will Spring Training start on time?

Maybe, maybe not.

Less than a month before pitchers and catchers are set to report, the Cactus League released a letter it sent to Major League Baseball in which it called for spring training to be delayed, a move it hopes would allow Arizona’s situation to improve as it relates to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The letter, addressed to MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred and dated Friday, was signed by Cactus League executive director Bridget Binsbacher, representatives of each of the Cactus League’s eight cities — including six mayors and two city managers — as well as a leader from the tribal community that is home to the league’s other facility.

“In view of the current state of the pandemic in Maricopa County — with one of the nation’s highest infection rates — we believe it is wise to delay the start of spring training to allow for the COVID-19 situation to improve here,” the letter stated. “… As leaders charged with protecting public health, and as committed, longtime partners in the spring training industry, we want you to know that we stand united on this point.”

The Cactus League does not have the power to unilaterally change the season’s Feb. 27 start date. That authority is collectively bargained between baseball’s owners and players. With multiple reports indicating the owners are in favor of a delay, the Cactus League’s letter could be interpreted as an attempt to ratchet up pressure on the players.

Despite acknowledging the league had been in regular contact with MLB — and that MLB was not caught off guard by the letter’s contents or its public release — Binsbacher said it was not meant to create leverage.

“Honestly, this letter was a sincere representation of our local leaders to encourage the safest possible scenario,” she said. “… Any (additional) time is going to improve the situation — and that’s truly the focus. If there is an opportunity to do this, we would support it. If they come back and say they want to continue on with the schedule as it is, we’re going to prepare for whatever the outcome is.”

[…]

The Athletic reported that in December MLB “floated” the idea of delaying spring training and the season by a month, but it would not assure the players of a full 162-game schedule or of paying them for any games missed. The conversation went nowhere, according to the report.

The players’ union issued a statement on Monday in which it said it was aware of the Cactus League’s letter, though had not been involved in direct communication with the league.

“While we, of course, share the goals of a safe spring training and regular season, MLB has repeatedly assured us that it has instructed its teams to be prepared for an on-time start to spring training and the regular season and we continue to devote all our efforts to making sure that that takes place as safely as possible,” the statement said.

You may recall there was a fair bit of friction between the league and the players last year over how many games were played, which had an effect on the amount of salary the players ultimately got. Not surprisingly, the players want to play a full season, and the owners would like to not pay them for a full season. Given that the NFL successfully completed a full season, and that the NBA and NHL are back to a more-or-less regular schedule, it’s hard to see MLB using the pandemic as a reason not to play, but the owners want to have fans in the stands as much as possible. Delaying the start of the season until more people are vaccinated, and local limits on crowd sizes are lifted, is a goal they may find attractive. My guess is that the season ultimately starts on time and it’s business mostly as usual, but it will be noisy along the way. ESPN has more.

Texas blog roundup for the week of January 25

Has the Texas Progressive Alliance mentioned how relieved it is that President Biden was finally inaugurated? Because we really are. Here’s the first roundup entirely in the Biden era.

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