A data storage device containing 1,816 votes in Hays County wasn’t counted in last November’s general election as a result of a “preventable human error,” the county’s new elections administrator announced this week.
Jennifer Anderson, who became the county’s elections administrator on Jan. 1, said an internal investigation showed that the device, similar to a memory card, was overlooked when the voting machine was taken offline at an early voting site on Oct. 25.
The devices are supposed to be quarantined and held for tallying, but for some reason, this one was not, Anderson said.
Officials have since counted those votes and say only one election would have turned out differently: a series of propositions for the newly created Anthem municipal utility district. A Hays County judge had already overturned the results of that election in December, after the only two eligible voters in that barely populated district said the election results didn’t reflect how they voted.
After fielding phone calls from residents with concerns about how the Anthem mishap occurred, Anderson decided to look into the issue.
Hays County uses an electronic voting system that stores voting data on memory cards that are backed up to a central data system. Anderson found that data hadn’t been backed up before or after early voting, so officials hadn’t realized the memory card from one machine had gone missing.
The missing device was only discovered after Anderson examined backup data as part of her investigation.
The official election results haven’t been updated to reflect the newly found ballots.
“It was pretty shocking to find that there were votes that had not been tallied that night,” Anderson said Thursday. “Yet (I was) relieved to find out it didn’t change anything.”
County promises policy changes
As a result of the findings, Anderson said she will implement new procedures to ensure the same mistakes aren’t made again.
Next election, the data storage devices will be locked in a cabinet in Anderson’s office at all times they aren’t being used, she said. The inventory will also be logged so officials can keep better track of them.
“Every night, we lock up the rooms with the boxes inside, sealed with numbers that are logged, and everything is very secure in our world,” Anderson said. “So when you leave something unsecured, you open it up for questions, at least for people to perceive the possibility for tampering.”
Backup of the system prior to election night will be mandatory, Anderson said.
Anderson added that her office also plans to request a new electronic voting system with better security protections within the next year.
Unlike other counties, such as Travis, Hays doesn’t have written rules for elections procedures.
In part because of that, and partly because no other election outcomes were affected, Anderson said she doesn’t plan to discipline anyone over this incident.
Travis County, by comparison, has safeguards in place that would have prevented such errors, County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir said.
All voting machines, whether mobile or fixed, are logged both electronically and with a paper record. And data backups are an absolute must, she said.
“I can’t imagine running an election without doing a SERVO (database) backup,” DeBeauvoir said.
Anthem election raised questions
Elections results showed that only one “against” ballot had been cast for the Anthem MUD bond proposition. But the only two qualified voters in the new subdivision near Kyle, Charles and Elizabeth Misenheimer, challenged that outcome in court.
In mid-November, the two filed a petition to contest the election in court, saying they had voted for the bond as well as for other Anthem propositions. In December, a judge issued a judgment overturning the election results.
The ballots, which then-elections administrator Joyce Cowan suggested to KXAN might have been cast incorrectly by the Misenheimers, were among those missing ballots found in the internal investigation, Anderson said.
The vote against the Anthem bond and the votes on other Anthem propositions came from an unqualified voter given the wrong ballot, Anderson said.
That is one characteristic of a new electronic voting system that could prevent such error: electronic assignment of ballots.
In Travis County, DeBeauvoir said elections workers ask voters to verify that the precinct on their assigned ballot matches the precinct on voter registration data they pull up.
Advocate calls for paper ballots
Despite Anderson’s goal of transparency, some county residents are outraged about what they see as election officials changing stories.
Matt Ocker, who has addressed Hays County commissioners for the past five consecutive meetings on the subject, said he isn’t satisfied with the county’s most recent explanation and infuriated that such errors were allowed to occur.
“The only reason we know about this is because it was an election where two people were eligible,” he said. “If you push that number out to 20 people, you’ll never know. So how many elections in Hays County do we have where an improper outcome is certified?”
Ocker said the errors raise questions about the integrity of Hays County elections. He is calling for a return to paper ballots, which he believes are easier to trace and more difficult to hack.
Hays County and other elections officials have challenged that idea, saying electronic systems allow for redundancy in storage of voting data.