Hays County election commission accepts new technology recommendation

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On Wednesday, the Hays County Election Commission agreed with a committee tasked with recommending new voting equipment be purchased by the county for use in future elections.

The Equipment Advisory Committee’s recommendation comes after 1,816 ballots went missing during the November election.

The county has said the issue stems from a mix of human and machine error. One of the county’s 13-year-old voting machines died during early voting, and its mobile ballot box—the digital repository that holds every vote cast on the machine—was taken to a storage room and forgotten about.

The issue has led many Hays County residents to call for an auditable paper trail associated with ballots in Hays County, but the equipment recommended by the committee does not allow for an auditable paper trail.

Many residents who spoke at today’s meeting said the county’s perceived opposition to paper ballots would shake some voters’ confidence in the county’s election system.

“Take away people’s belief that they have recourse at the ballot box and see where that leads you,” Hays County resident Matt Ocker said. “It is not a pretty picture. That’s why there are Molotov cocktails that get thrown in other countries.”

Pastor Todd Salmi, who works with Texas State United Campus Ministry, said the paper ballots could be used as a redundant backup system to the electronic votes.

“What I’m hearing from many people clearly in this room this morning as well as out in the community is that [a]paper trail is a critical redundant system that just helps add to the integrity of our election process,” Salmi said. “As a pastor I know that trust is extremely important in our shared community lives. Paper ballots help build the confidence and trust in our public systems that we have as citizens together.”

In the past, Hays County officials have voiced a desire to see the county implement voting centers—a voting system allowing county residents to cast their votes at any polling place on election day rather than at their designated precinct polling place. No official direction or vote has been taken by the commissioners court on that issue.

“[Paper ballots] still have to be handled by humans, which means they are ripe for human error and manipulation. They are still counted electronically so you are not getting away from the technology. They still have to be counted electronically.”

— Hays County resident Jeannie Lewis

The potential move to voting centers has complicated the county’s use of voting equipment which includes an auditable paper trail. Currently there are no electronic voting machines that produce auditable paper trails approved for use in Texas counties that use voting centers.

Hays County Elections Administrator Jennifer Anderson said the Hart Verity Touch voting machine recommended by the committee could be retrofitted in the future to allow for an auditable paper trail, assuming the state changes its voting laws or the Texas Secretary of State approves that equipment for use in voting centers.

Jeannie Lewis, who works with the League of Women Voters of Hays County, said she is skeptical paper ballots will solve any problems. Paper ballots provide a “false sense of security” for voters, she said. Lewis said she is most concerned with moving the county to vote centers.

“[Paper ballots] still have to be handled by humans, which means they are ripe for human error and manipulation,” Lewis said. “They are still counted electronically so you are not getting away from the technology. They still have to be counted electronically.”

“The public had been asking for transparency and accountability in answering questions about the 2016 election, and has been stonewalled.”

—Equipment Advisory Committee member Sam Brannon

Sam Brannon, who was appointed to the Equipment Advisory Committee that recommended the new equipment, voted against the recommendation of the Hart system and urged the election commission to reject the committee’s recommendation on Wednesday. Brannon said he felt the committee’s analysis of the machines lacked rigor. He was also critical of the committee’s decision to close its meetings to the public.

He was also critical of the committee’s decision to close its meetings to the public.

“The public had been asking for transparency and accountability in answering questions about the 2016 election, and has been stonewalled,” Brannon wrote in an “alternate report” breaking down the equipment committee’s recommendation.

John Adams, who chairs the Hays County Democrats and serves on the Hays County Elections Commission, provided the lone vote against accepting the committee’s recommendation of the Hart Verity Touch system. Adams said he agreed with Brannon’s criticism that the discussion about new voting equipment could have used more rigor.

Adams said his main priority is moving the county toward voting centers, which he believes could cut down on wait times at polling places and solve some confusion voters experience on election day when they show up to the wrong polling place.

“If in the future there is some mechanism to give people a paper audit trail, I think that is money well spent if in fact it allows that voter to be more comfortable that their vote counts and that their vote is going to be counted,” Adams said. “Anything we can do to let the voters be more comfortable or confident in the integrity of the system is going to be money well spent.”

The commissioners court will likely accept the committee’s recommendation at a meeting July 11, Anderson said. From there, the decision to actually purchase the equipment will be discussed during the county’s budget discussions. Anderson said if the county does approve the purchase, the new equipment would likely not be introduced until elections in 2018.

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Brett Thorne reported on education, business, economic development and city government in San Marcos, Kyle and Buda from 2012 to 2017. Thorne attended Texas State University in San Marcos, where he graduated in 2010. He joined Community Impact Newspaper as a reporter in 2012 and was promoted to editor in 2013.
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