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Travis County Forges New Territory in Creating Voting Machine

Travis County now finds itself, along with Los Angeles County in California, at the cutting edge of a race against time to create an alternative voting technology system.

Paul Beckham and Gary Giffen leave Zilker Elementary School in Austin after casting ballots for the primary election on March 4.

With the nation facing what a January government report described as an “impending crisis” in voting technology, officials in Travis County are taking matters into their own hands by seeking to create a unique, next-generation system of voting machines.

The efforts put Travis County, along with Los Angeles County in California, at the cutting edge of a race against time to create an alternative voting technology system.

The new machines would have voters use off-the-shelf electronic equipment like tablets, but also provide them with receipts and printed ballots to allow for easier auditing. The development and implementation process won’t be finished in time for the 2016 elections, though officials hope to have the system ready by the 2018 gubernatorial race.

The most recent era of voting technology began in 2002, when Congress — scarred by the memories of hanging chads and nearly 2 million disqualified ballots a couple of years before — passed the Help America Vote Act, which won bipartisan support and was signed into law by President George W. Bush.

The law overhauled the way the nation voted, replacing punch cards and lever machines with touchscreens and scanners. It doled out $3.9 billion to local jurisdictions for the new equipment. It created a commission that in 2005 adopted standards to certify voting machines on the market. And then the focus on improving voting technology nearly evaporated.

A decade later, the local governments that operate elections are using the same equipment, but many of them no longer have enough money to replace increasingly frail technology. Regardless, the handful of vendors controlling much of the market have not introduced new machines — despite persistent concerns about security and auditability in many of the existing electronics. The Election Assistance Commission has not had a single commissioner or a permanent executive director since 2011.

Some election administrators have said the status quo will likely fall apart within a few years. Across the country, “it’s all just a guessing game at this point: How long can we last?” said Dana DeBeauvoir, the Travis County clerk.

Three years ago, DeBeauvoir decided that something had to change. “I said, ‘Okay, I’m fed up. I’m going to design my own system.’” Part of her frustration stemmed from complaints lodged against the county that she felt blamed officials for things beyond their control. Travis County voters filed a lawsuit in 2006 alleging that electronic voting machines lacked reliability and security. The case was dismissed by the Texas Supreme Court in 2011.

After deciding to create a new system, DeBeauvoir gathered a citizens’ study group, and then a panoply of experts, to iron out the details.

The group is now close to finishing the design of a prototype known as the STAR (Security, Transparency, Auditability and Reliability) Voting System. The county intends to issue a request for proposals within a couple of months and hopes to select a winning bid by the end of the year, DeBeauvoir said. 

Who might submit bids is an open question, she added, given the novelty of the designed system. DeBeauvoir would like to see traditional vendors respond “if they could put aside some of their old thinking,” but she would also welcome new collaborations between software firms and companies with election experience.

STAR Vote shifts away from the old model, in which counties principally buy unique hardware from vendors, like the Austin-based Hart InterCivic. The new system will be county-owned and -operated, relying on open-source software that can be shared across jurisdictions and only requires equipment that can be bought commercially off the shelf, like tablets and scanners.

The designs already posted on the Travis County clerk’s website lay out a multi-step process: A voter checks in, signs a roster and receives a ticket. Then, she gives the ticket to a poll worker to get a unique ballot code from a ballot control station, which sends information to a voting device. At the device, she makes her choices, prints out a completed ballot and deposits it in a ballot box with a scanner. She also receives a receipt that allows her to check online the next day to ensure the ballot was counted.

All the devices communicate with each other to update and confirm data. To ensure security, the system employs cryptography that “has never been done before” in voting technology, DeBeauvoir said.

The printed paper ballot is particularly crucial, as it addresses one of the principal criticisms of the existing electronic systems. The touchscreen machines common in many counties lack “a paper trail that actually captures the intent of the voter so that you can audit the machines,” said Alex Russell, a University of Connecticut professor of computer science and mathematics and faculty member at the school’s Center for Voting Technology Research. During recounts, auditors can only double-check what the machines say, without any way to verify that the machines reflect voters’ choices.

The prospect of changing the current system excites some political officials as well. Texas Republican Party Chairman Steve Munisteri said he had not heard of STAR Vote, but he has seen firsthand the need for a paper trail to back up electronic machines. “To me that’s the key, is how you have a backup to make sure that an error is detected,” he said.

A Texas Democratic Party spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Travis County’s plans are also in line with the recommendations of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, which was convened by President Obama after problems at the 2012 polls. The commission released a report in January recommending a shift toward systems that rely on commercial products and software-only devices.

If all goes well, STAR Vote will still take at least another two years of development and implementation, DeBeauvoir said.

DeBeauvoir said that 10 other counties in the Texas Conference of Urban Counties have expressed interest in STAR Vote, and Travis County is set to brief them on the latest updates at the conference’s next meeting this Thursday. She expects that the total cost of software and development will be around $8.5 million — about the same as buying one of the existing systems in the market, but significantly cheaper if shared by all the interested counties.

Los Angeles County is taking similar steps to develop its own system, and Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk Dean Logan has communicated with DeBeauvoir throughout the process. Around the country, “there are a lot of jurisdictions that are watching to see how these two projects are going to develop,” he said.

Meanwhile, the federal commission is attempting to create a process that would certify and incentivize more of the newer open-source software systems. Officials and experts, including DeBeauvoir, met last month in Maryland to discuss the situation and how the agency might proceed despite being hamstrung by a lack of commissioners.

For DeBeauvoir, the Travis County project’s next phase is now kicking into high gear. “There’s just not enough time left,” she said. “We have to hurry, and yet great care is needed.”

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