We’re still using them for this election, as clunky and outdated as they are, but they’re on the way out.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