Missing ballots spur calls for auditable vote system

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On the second day of early voting in the November election, Jacob Montoya cast a ballot at the Hays County Government Center. He was a San Marcos mayoral candidate and eager to cast his ballot in that race and other local contests.

How we got here

But his vote ultimately went uncounted, one of 1,816 votes stored on a memory card that was misplaced and discovered weeks after Election Day on Nov. 6.

“Do you think the younger generation is going to vote after something like this?” Montoya said. “My vote didn’t matter. First of all, they didn’t count it, and then when they did find it, they didn’t count it anyway.”

Montoya has since begun working with a Houston-based attorney who has intimated he plans to file a lawsuit on behalf of three Hays County voters related to the voting issues.

“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 at a Hays County Commissioners Court meeting in July. “It is not a pretty picture. That’s why there are Molotov cocktails that get thrown in other countries.”

Paper ballots

The confusion regarding the November election has led many Hays County residents to call for the use of paper ballots, which advocates say could give voters peace of mind that their vote has been accurately recorded.

Hays County officials have in the past voiced a desire to implement vote centers during elections. Vote centers would allow voters to cast a ballot at any polling place in the county on election day rather than only at their precinct polling place, but would also prohibit the use of paper ballots because the state has not approved any voting equipment that produces paper ballots in counties that use vote centers. Advocates of vote centers say the move could reduce confusion on election day when voters often appear to vote at the wrong polling place.

The lack of state-approved machines has led some to weigh whether potentially increasing turnout and accessibility at the polls through vote centers is more important than moving to paper ballots.

John Adams, who chairs the Hays County Democrats and serves on the Hays County Elections Commission, 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. For now he supports the use of machines that would allow the county to implement vote centers.

“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.”

New equipment sought by some

Hays County’s voting equipment is about 13 years old, Anderson said.

The county for the past few years has discussed whether to purchase new voting equipment, but the 1,816 missing ballots have heightened residents’ calls for new equipment. In June a committee composed of Hays County citizens, elections office officials and others involved in elections in the county recommended the purchase of new equipment from Hart InterCivic, the county’s election equipment vendor.

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 county election commission to reject the committee’s recommendation on July 5. 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.

“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” explaining his opposition to the Equipment Advisory Committee’s recommendation.

The equipment recommended by the committee does not create an auditable paper trail, but Hart Marketing Director Steven Sockwell said the system does create multiple forms of redundancy to ensure voters’ ballots are correctly recorded.

Cast Away

The equipment committee’s recommendation was ultimately accepted by the county election commission in June, but there is no timeline for when a decision might be made regarding the possible purchase of new equipment.

Hays County Commissioner Will Conley said he still has faith in the current equipment and is not convinced purchasing new voting machines is necessary.

The November ballots went missing because one of the machines’ batteries died, and the machine could not be turned back on. Despite the loss of power, the votes that were cast on the machine were retained, and no data was destroyed.

“I haven’t seen anything that doesn’t give me confidence in our machines,” Conley said.

Paper ballots go to court

On July 6, state Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, wrote a letter to the Texas attorney general making the case that voting machines that allow voters to cast a ballot on an electronic screen and receive a paper print out of their selection could be approved for use in vote centers. The attorney general’s office declined to review the request because of litigation filed July 31 by Hart InterCivic, the same voting equipment manufacturer Hays County is considering purchasing new equipment from, against the Texas Secretary of State.

That litigation seeks to block Larson’s request. In the lawsuit Hart alleges that if the attorney general determines paper ballot-producing machines can be used in the same way direct recording electronic voting machines are, the decision “will create a very real and incalculable risk of injecting illegal voting for all elections statewide. Indeed, voters disappointed with political outcomes will likely file election contests throughout the state.”

Although some residents see paper ballots as the solution to the issue, others are skeptical.

The 1(816) That Got Away

Jeannie Lewis, who works with the League of Women Voters of Hays County, said she is not convinced 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.”

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Brett Thorne has reported on education, business, economic development and city government in San Marcos, Kyle and Buda since 2012. 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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