The most critical piece of any election is getting the results right.
That simple goal involves highly complex logistics when it comes to voting equipment. Travis County has hundreds of different ballot combinations tailored to voters in different congressional, legislative and local districts, making preprinted paper ballots an unwieldy option — particularly in a county where any voter can conveniently go to any polling location. But the electronic voting machines Travis County has used for the past 17 years lack the kind of paper trail that some voters and cybersecurity experts have long advocated.
We applaud the new voting system Travis County commissioners approved this week: a hybrid setup in which voters will make their selections on electronic equipment, then print out a paper ballot card and verify their picks before feeding that ballot into a scanner.
The system, which will debut in the November 2019 elections, is the culmination of Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir’s decade-plus effort to obtain a voter-verified paper ballot system without sacrificing the efficiencies of a computerized one. DeBeauvoir didn’t just find a ready-to-use system she liked; she helped bring it to life.
The arrival of a verifiable paper trail can’t come soon enough. Knowing the original paper ballots will be available for examination or recount purposes, Travis County voters can have greater confidence their votes were cast and counted.
While DeBeauvoir is rightly celebrating this week’s milestone decision to buy the new $8.2 million system — with another $1.5 million in related expenses coming — she told us the work around election integrity is far from done.
Voters must take responsibility under the new system and truly look over their paper ballot before casting it. Studies of similar voter-verified models show many voters don’t.
“They’ll have a real job to do here … making sure the ballot they create is in fact the one that expresses their intent,” DeBeauvoir said.
Though voting machines were always a long-shot target for hackers, as they’re not connected to the Internet, Russia’s hacking efforts in 2016 have highlighted the vulnerability of other online resources, such as voter registration databases. Local and state officials must ensure those databases are protected from those who wish to sow mayhem on Election Day.
Based on the monitoring and testing techniques her office has long used on Travis County’s voting machines, DeBeauvoir said she’s convinced the current system accurately records and tabulates the votes.
Even so, she took to heart the concerns raised by voters and members of the Travis County Clerk Election Study Group, which concluded in a 2009 report that a paper trail was needed to provide more verifiable results and improve voter confidence. Those findings echoed a 2006 report by computer experts at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which said malware or glitches could corrupt the results in electronic voting machines, but officials and the public might never know that happened unless there was a paper backup.
“Some of the craziest attacks you can envision involve computer stuff,” Rice University computer science professor Dan Wallach told us. “What I like about having boxes of paper is that it eliminates this kind of gross tampering that a computer can accomplish.”
Even when technology performs perfectly, humans can err: About 1,800 Hays County ballots went uncounted in the 2016 general election when election crews overlooked a memory card containing those votes.
DeBeauvoir went in search of a system that would provide a paper trail while keeping the upsides of computerized voting: machines that are fully accessible to disabled voters, a system that quickly tallies votes on election night, and no potential for paper ballots to be filled with extra or erroneous markings.
Not finding a satisfactory system on the market several years ago, DeBeauvoir worked with Wallach and other experts to design STAR-Vote, an open-source system that other counties could access at no cost and would run on readily available devices.
That effort sputtered last fall when DeBeauvoir struggled to find a private company willing to build an open-source platform that wouldn’t provide the usual profits of a proprietary system.
But the project got the attention of the elections equipment industry, and the for-profit company Election Systems & Software developed its own system, available for purchase, that hits the key items on DeBeauvoir’s checklist.
The arrival next year of a voter-verified paper trail should promote public confidence in Travis County’s elections. We also hope it will resolve the doubts about computerized ballots that fueled Laura Pressley’s recount lawsuit over her failed 2014 Austin City Council bid, a challenge that’s still pending on appeal before the Texas Supreme Court.
DeBeauvoir’s collaboration with voting security experts who pushed for a better system will benefit not only Travis County, but it has made a better option available to other counties as well.
But it will work only if voters do their part: Show up, vote and verify.