It might not be the first-of-its-kind, open-source software voting system that Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir has sought for more than a decade, but the county will have a voting system with a paper trail by the November 2019 election.
Travis County commissioners Tuesday unanimously approved the purchase of an about $8.2 million electronic voting system with paper backup from Election Systems & Software. About $1.5 million in costs for other election day equipment will need to be approved in coming weeks, bringing the total cost to about $9.7 million.
The county will be among the first in the nation to commit to rigorous statistical auditing using that backup.
The new system, which will replace the county’s 17-year-old one, will allow voters to see paper copies of their selections and verify that those are correct before casting their ballots. It also will create a paper record that can be checked against electronic voting totals during audits or recounts.
This model offers “the best of both worlds,” DeBeauvoir told commissioners, as it offers the speed of an electronic system combined with the reassurance and auditability of a paper trail system.
DeBeauvoir, the county’s chief election official, said a voter will be given an activation card at the polling place to insert into the voting machine. That card will prompt the machine to display the correct ballot for the voter.
Voters will make their selections on a touchscreen before printing out a paper vote record and checking its accuracy. The final step will be to insert the paper record into a sealed machine that scans and records it. Storage devices, similar to flash drives, from those machines then will be put into a reader and tallied.
“Our voters have been asking for it for a long time, and it was not available on the marketplace,” DeBeauvoir added in an interview. “I tried to build it myself. We got a long way down the line, and … we caused, we influenced the marketplace to come back and do this.”
Since 2009, the county had been working with experts to design a voting system with a paper trail, called STAR-Vote — short for Secure, Transparent, Auditable and Reliable. The plan was for it to be open source, meaning free and available to anyone (or in this case, to a select group of election officials) to study, use and modify.
But in September, DeBeauvoir announced that a 2016 request for proposals from private companies to build the system had fallen flat. The companies just weren’t interested in an open-source approach because it wouldn’t require continual renewal of expensive software licensing agreements, she said.
Open source was central to the STAR-Vote design, however, because it brought down the cost of equipment, DeBeauvoir said. It’s much cheaper to buy tablets in bulk, for example, than pricey proprietary hardware.
The voting technology market, highly regulated and difficult to break into, is very small — just three companies control about 92 percent of the marketplace, according to a March 2017 report by the Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative.
Companies only began to develop paper trail systems about three to four years ago, DeBeauvoir said. Certification of a system generally takes up to four years, she said.
“(The marketplace is) not highly innovative because it’s so small and so regulated,” she said, “but these companies are trying to do that now (move to paper trail systems), and a lot of it was because STAR-Vote demanded it. The whole country was looking at STAR-Vote.”
The county’s new system will be paid for with about $3 million previously allocated to STAR-Vote as well as non-voter approved bonds. The roughly $9 million price tag is lower than STAR-Vote’s, which was expected to cost between $12 million to $16 million.
DeBeauvoir said the county plans to kick off a public education campaign in summer 2019 to familiarize voters with how the new system works. The county will review its polling locations to make sure they can accommodate the larger amount of space the new equipment will require.
Gavino Fernandez, president of a Central Travis County chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens, which has worked with the county clerk’s office on voting issues for 15 years, said he was pleased with the new system.
“Many of the voters … always wanted to have something to verify that their vote had counted … and this provides that,” Fernandez said. “We look forward to working with Dana DeBeauvoir’s office and hosting meetings in the community so voters will get familiar with the machines.”
Commissioners, including Jeff Travillion, applauded DeBeauvoir’s long-term efforts to improve election security and voter confidence.
“This has been a fact-based, system-based, verifiable, documented approach, and I think that our citizens and taxpayers can have confidence in our system because of that,” Travillion said.
The county also has committed to doing so-called “risk-limiting audits,” a process recommended by cybersecurity experts that involves taking a statistically significant sample of paper ballots, its size dependent on the election outcome’s margin, and comparing them with the electronic record.
Just three states have laws requiring such audits, considered the “gold standard” by some elections experts: Colorado, Rhode Island and Virginia, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“If you are not using your paper trail to go back and compare it to your electronic copy, then you never know if the machine is casting votes as intended and if the votes are counted as cast,” she said.
Reports of Russian interference in the 2016 election have led to heightened national concern over the integrity of U.S. elections, leading jurisdictions across the country to speed up efforts to replace aging voting systems ahead of the 2020 presidential election.
Asked about election system integrity by Commissioner Brigid Shea, DeBeauvoir said the most prevalent foreign threat is sowing distrust through social media and other networks and voter registration hacks, not voting machine tampering.
In March, President Donald Trump approved the allocation of $380 million for states to make election security improvements as part of his $1.3 trillion spending bill.
Thirteen states still contain counties that use machines without paper trails, which can’t be audited, and five of those states are entirely paperless, according to Verified Voter, a nonpartisan nonprofit that advocates election accuracy and transparency and monitors voting systems nationwide.
About 30 percent of Texas counties will be using systems without paper trails in November 2018, according to the organization’s database.
“After the events of the 2016 election cycle, people understand the risk that Verified Voting and many other organizations have been talking about for the past 14 years,” said Marian Schneider, the organization’s president. “Finally our election infrastructure is getting a lot of much needed attention.”
While Schneider said it was a shame that the county had to drop STAR-Vote, she said she was encouraged by its interest, and many other jurisdictions’, in risk-limiting auditing.
Election Systems & Software, one of the nation’s largest voting machine vendors, was the lowest bidder, and the other four companies that responded did not meet all the county’s requirements, DeBeauvoir said. The company is not new to the county, which used its hand-marked paper ballot system before going electronic in 2001, and serves voters in 42 states and 145 Texas counties.
Tom Burt, president and CEO, told commissioners Tuesday that the company is “very honored” to have been chosen.
“Clerk DeBeauvoir has established herself and her team nationally with a very strong reputation for election security and administration,” Burt said.
The county’s current vendor, Hart InterCivic, another respondent, is not yet certified on a state or federal level, and it would take the company too long to do so ahead of the target rollout of November 2019, DeBeauvoir said. The company disagreed in a statement provided to the American-Statesman.
“We acknowledge the County’s decision and are disappointed it chose to forego the opportunity to implement an innovative product tailored to the County’s specifications that met the spirit of the Clerk’s years-long, publicly stated objectives of STAR Vote,” the statement read. “Hart proposed just such a solution that would be ready in the timeline the county communicated to us that it desired. Any suggestion to the contrary is incorrect.”
“Hart will review its options. In the meantime, we wish nothing but the best for the Clerk’s constituents and the voters of Travis County.”
The county will eventually sell its old hardware, which cost about $7 million when the county bought it in the early 2000s, but DeBeauvoir said she will be waiting to recommend doing so until the new system is operating at 100 percent.
As for STAR-Vote, the project is far from over. The city of San Francisco and Portland-based company Free & Fair, among others, have picked up the project where Travis County left off, she said.
“I can’t tell you what a relief it is to finally be here,” DeBeauvoir said. “I feel like I have been in the fight of my life to bring voters what they have been asking for.”