Paper ballots could come to Hays County

Guest Column

Modern paper voting systems have the speed and convenience of electronic vote counting while providing a software-independent way to audit the electronic count. Hays County wants to replace its aging voting machines, and an increasing number of voters are asking for a system with this paper audit trail. The county’s original timeline required a decision last summer. At that time, a couple of outdated state regulations ruled out any paper option. However, the selection process has been delayed, and recent state decisions have removed those barriers.

The Texas Secretary of State (SOS) maintains a list of approved voting machines, and counties must choose from the following:

  • An all-electronic voting option that is like our current machines, but with a touch-screen interface instead of a wheel and buttons. There is no paper ballot trail.
  • A hand-marked paper ballot that is electronically scanned and counted. This is not your grandfather’s paper ballot. The bubbles are bigger, and the scanner software is better at handling poorly-marked ballots. You mark the ballot and feed it into the scanner.
  • A machine-marked paper ballot that is electronically scanned and counted. The voter interface is a touch screen, and the device prints out your choices in human-readable form as well as a barcode. You feed this printout into the scanner.

Until recently, an SOS regulation blocked us from using paper ballot scanners in early voting. The SOS changed this regulation in October, and both of the paper ballot solutions can now be used in early voting.

Another regulation affects our ability to move to county-wide voter centers in the future. Under the voter center program, a voter can go to any polling place in the county on Election Day. Hays County has not taken a decision to implement voter centers, but it wants to keep that option open.

State law requires the use of “direct recording electronic” (DRE) voting machines in county-wide voter centers. “DRE” has traditionally been interpreted as meaning all-electronic. Bills were introduced in the last legislative session to remove the DRE restriction, but the Senate bill was caught up in the storm over more controversial issues. The next opportunity to change the law will be in the 2019 session.

However, there is a partial fix that involves the interpretation of that law. In late October, the Texas Attorney General issued an opinion that machine-marked paper ballot systems are DREs for purposes of the law. This decision did not affect the status of hand-marked ballots. This opinion could be challenged in court (for example, by the maker of the handmarked system).

Unless we wait until the 2019 session to make a decision (which would mean the machines would not be used until 2020), our paper options are as follows:

  • If we want paper and (barring a successful challenge) the ability to go to voter centers without legislative action, we can go with machine-marked ballots.
  • If we are willing to gamble that the legislature will remove the DRE requirement before we’re ready to go to voter centers, we could pick the handmarked ballots.

Legal issues aside, which paper ballot system is better? I was on the citizen’s Election Equipment Upgrade Committee, and the original time constraints limited the scope of our evaluation. We were able to examine the voting place equipment, and both types of paper systems seemed acceptable. But there was no time to examine the back office systems that define and deploy the ballots and that compile and report the results. These systems are important in determining the security of an election and the amount of administrative work required. Now that the time constraints have been relaxed, we should allow the county IT department to examine these back office systems. If they determine that the hand-marked system has significant advantages, I think the greater uncertainty about voter centers is an acceptable risk. If there is no clear advantage, the machine-marked system is a safer choice. Either way, Hays County now has a viable option for a voting system that includes paper ballots.

Robert Smith is a resident of Wimberley.

San Marcos Daily Record

(512) 392-2458
P.O. Box 1109, San Marcos, TX 78666