Hays County moves forward with purchase of hybrid voting machines

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Starting in November, Hays County residents will use new hybrid voting machines that produce paper records in addition to counting electronic votes.

County commissioners voted 4-1 July 30, with Judge Ruben Becerra dissenting, to authorize county staff to negotiate a contract with the company Hart InterCivic for its Verity Duo system.

The Hart InterCivic system was one of two proposals presented to commissioners, and it was chosen over the system made by Election Systems & Software. Both systems produce a paper record of votes, which Elections Administrator Jennifer Anderson said was important to voters.

“Both systems that we brought before you provide a paper backup because that’s what our voters have asked for,” Anderson said.

Hays County voting equipment is aging—it was bought in 2004—but residents have been particularly concerned about having new machines that leave a paper trail since 1,816 votes were lost during the November 2017 election.

Anderson said she was confident in both systems under consideration, and several commissioners agreed.

“I consider both of them to be very similar,” Commissioner Lon Shell said. “There were some pros and cons, but in the end I thought they were fairly equal.”

The Hart InterCivic system, however, costs about $230,000 less than the one by ESS. The county will order 400 machines to replace the current inventory of 256.

Commissioner Walt Smith raised the issue of provisional ballots and said they are important to voters in his district, which includes Texas State University students living in San Marcos.

“There are a number of students that vote,” Smith said. “They may be registered somewhere else; they may be registered here. There’s some confusion, and they have to cast a provisional vote.”

Confusion over student voting registration was at issue during the recount for the Precinct 3 Hays County commissioners race in November, which ended with a 37-vote margin.

The ESS system asks poll workers to check a box on provisional ballots, but the Hart InterCivic system does not, according to representatives from both companies.

“I feel compelled to stand up here for my judges and my poll workers and say I’m not comfortable with a provisional ballot being marked by the poll worker,” Anderson said. “As we’ve talked about over the last year and a half, we’re trying to take some of that human element out of the checking process. So I don’t want to put that on them that they have to check a box in order for it not to be tabulated.”

Commissioner Mark Jones, who ultimately made the motion to approve the Hart InterCivic system, said he thought both choices would be acceptable, but that it was important to him the machines chosen were appealing to those with disabilities.

“I can’t tell the difference between the two of them,” he said. “And so it comes down to relying on Jennifer [Anderson] for the people with disabilities—if she really feels that the Hart is the better [option] for people with disabilities.”

The vote authorizes the county to negotiate a contract with Hart, but exact costs have not been set, nor did the county make the cost estimates immediately available. The county has budgeted $2 million for the new system, and the Hart InterCivic estimate came in below that number.

In terms of making sure all votes are counted accurately, Jeff McGill—Hays County director of information security—said he was equally confident in both systems.

“They both checked all of my boxes in terms of security,” McGill said. “I feel confident that every vote will count.”

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Katharine Jose has written about politics, infrastructure, environment, development, natural disasters and other subjects for The New York Observer, Capital New York, and The New York Times, among other publications. She was an editor for several publications in New York City before she moved to Texas, and has a master's degree in urban planning from the University of Texas-Austin.
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