The new system, valued at $10 million, includes 3,000 voting machines and 400 ballot scanners, all set to debut this fall. The county also paid another $1 million for a two-year license.
“They have the electronic accuracy of the screen and everything, but we also gave voters what they were asking the [commissioners] court to give them, which is a paper trail for our elections,” Tarrant County Elections Administrator Heider Garcia said.
The Texas Secretary of State also approved a request for countywide voting, which allows people to cast a ballot at any of the 332 polling places in Tarrant County. Voters can still go to their assigned precincts, but they also have the convenience to go to any other polling place within the county.
Garcia said this fall is the most suitable time to introduce the changes. Tarrant County saw record turnout in the 2018 mid-term elections and expects high voter turnout again in 2020, officials said. But this fall’s election, which has fewer measures, is projected to have low turnout.
That said, the county would welcome more volunteers at polling locations to help people learn to use the new machines, Garcia said. The county typically uses about 2,500 volunteers during general elections.
The Nov. 5 ballot will have 10 statewide constitutional amendments. There is also a bond proposal for Tarrant County College District.
“It’ll be interesting to see how this goes,” Tarrant County Precinct 3 Commissioner Gary Fickes said. “I don’t think that this election this November is going to give us any indication of anything. You just don’t get the kind of turnout for what they call a ‘constitutional amendment election.’”
An aging system
The previous voting system had been in place since 2006. Garcia said the older system created some confusion because it used two different methods for voting.
“We used to have people who would come in to vote early and say, ‘Where’s my paper ballot?’” he said. “We’d say ‘We don’t have one in early voting.’ [They’d say,] ‘Then I’ll come back on Election Day.’ So depending on when you voted, you had a different experience.”
Tarrant County voters will now have the same experience regardless of when they vote, he said.
The new machines were also received favorably by the heads of both local partisan groups.
In the past, polling locations had one electronic device available on Election Day for people with special needs. But people who simply preferred electronic voting were able to use it as well.
When given the choice, an increasing percentage of people said they wanted to vote via the electronic ballot, said Darl Easton, chair of the Tarrant County Republican Party and a former election judge. But because there was only one machine, it resulted in longer wait times, he said. Now, the new machines will better reflect the preferences of the times.
“Voting on this new screen is going to be more intuitive to the voter as well,” Easton said.
People may be a little nervous about the transition, but that is typical of any change, said Kathy Braatz, president of the Northeast Tarrant Democrats.
“Once people get used to the change, it will be easier,” Braatz said. “I think older voters will like the paper ballot part of it, especially, and I think new voters or younger voters will really like the [countywide voting] piece of it.”
By law, voting machines are not connected to the internet. That is one aspect of voting that did not change with the switch to the new machines.
“That’s always been one of the basic foundations in security in elections,” Garcia said. “Your voting machines are not connected to anything, so there’s no physical way to get into them.”
And while the technology is newer, votes will not be counted any faster on election night.
Poll workers still have to physically collect the memory cartridges and the ballots from each location to post results online, Garcia said.
Fickes said he believes the new technology is a good thing.
“If it does what they say it’s going to do, I think people will be happy with it,” he said.