Tarrant County is shifting to prenumbered, sequential ballots for the Nov. 5 presidential elections following a Tarrant County Election Board vote April 2.

The vote passed 3-1 with Democratic Party Election Chair Crystal Gayden as the sole opposing vote. County Judge Tim O’Hare, Republican Party Chair Bo French and Sheriff Bill Waybourn voted for the change, and Elections Administrator Clint Ludwig recused himself due to the agenda item charging him with procuring the new ballots.

The details

In the current system, the county purchases and distributes blank ballot paper to polling locations, Ludwig told commissioners during a presentation at an April 2 meeting. Voters then insert the ballot paper into the voting machine, which assigns each ballot a random serial number linked to the machine that can be tracked through the voting process.

Under the changes, election judges will now send Tarrant County ballots to polling locations prenumbered and preshuffled to preserve voting secrecy. Poll workers will then lay them out on tables for voter selection, Ludwig said. These ballots will still receive the unique identifier when run through the voting machines.

However, unlike the blank ballots, any unused prenumbered ballots cannot be repurposed for another election. The prenumbered ballots are assigned to specific polling locations and must remain as a record.

“If a location is running low, we can’t move paper around from location to location. It all has to be tracked, and I would have to bring reserves from headquarters to those locations in order to make sure we had sufficient ballots to cover any shortages,” Ludwig said.

The county will store the unused prenumbered ballots for three years before destroying them along with the rest of the election records, as required by state law, Ludwig said.

Zooming in

The shift to prenumbered ballots will also usher additional costs. Blank ballot paper costs the county $290 per 1,000 ballots, and prenumbered ballots would increase the cost to $320, Ludwig said.

Printing the 1.3 million ballots needed to cover registered Tarrant County voters would result in a $39,000 cost difference per election. In this instance O’Hare estimated about $13,000 worth of ballots would be wasted during the Nov. 5 presidential election.

Only 850,000 people in Tarrant County voted in the 2020 election, Precinct 2 Commissioner Alisa Simmons noted, meaning the number of wasted ballots could be larger than quantified.

“I think what will result if this change happens will be of course an expense to the taxpayers to do the same thing we are already effectively and efficiently doing,” Simmons said.

Additionally, the county could see between two to four elections on odd years and three to seven on even years, which could exacerbate the cost of wasted ballots since prenumbered ballots cannot be reused, said Jack Collier, a longtime election judge and one of several who spoke in opposition to the change.

Tarrant County will hold four elections in 2024. Based on O’Hare’s estimates, if Tarrant County used prenumbered ballots for all four elections, it would result in about $52,000 worth of excess ballot paper.

What they’re saying

The use of prenumbered ballot stock will not improve election integrity but will rather add unnecessary bureaucracy and increased cost, Janet Mattern of the League of Women Voters of Tarrant County said to commissioners.

“Where will funds to purchase the prenumbered ballot stock come from?” Mattern said. “I was an election judge at the November constitutional amendment election at one of the busiest polling locations in Tarrant County, and we had a line of voters out the door when I opened and after we closed. If staffing and equipment are reduced to purchase this paper, I foresee much longer lines.”

The county will also be more vulnerable to ballot paper shortages and variable costs, Mattern said. Instead, she advocated for hiring more poll workers and increasing their pay as a method of improving election security.

However, Aubree Campbell and others who spoke in favor of the ballot change were convinced that blank ballots subordinate security for cost and that election accuracy should be the prevailing concern. Campbell also asserted that the change would put the county in compliance with state law.

By not using prenumbered, sequential ballots, Tarrant County is violating state election code Section 52.062, which states that “the ballots prepared by each authority shall be numbered consecutively beginning with the number one,” she said.

A 2022 Texas attorney general opinion ruled that blank ballots assigned an identifying number by a polling location machine complied with the Texas Election Code, affirming the Texas secretary of state’s interpretation.

Prenumbered ballots help detect the insertion of unlawful ballots during the voting process, Campbell said.

“Saving money is not the issue. When it comes to elections, security should be the main focus, not cutting corners,” she said.

Also of note

Despite the concerns, a 2022 audit of the 2020 general election by the Texas secretary of state found no evidence of widespread voter fraud that would have influenced the election results.

Audit documents state that Tarrant County’s barcode system was the best for tracking election equipment, and its electronic processing of mail ballots promoted transparency.

A total of 18 people spoke in opposition to the change and seven in support between both the Commissioners Court and election board meetings. Once the change is implemented, Tarrant County will join Ellis and Dallas counties as the only major counties to use prenumbered paper ballots.