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Travis County committee to study vote machines

Tuesday, February 10, 2009 by Austin Monitor

Even since the 2000 presidential election debacle in Florida, there has been increased scrutiny on how America votes. Travis County, like much of the country, pre-empted its own “hanging chad” moment by switching to electronic voting machines. Now those have been criticized for not leaving a paper trial.

 

Last week, County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir and the Travis County Commissioners discussed putting together a county clerk elections study group. According to DeBeauvoir, it would be “a citizens group of Travis County voters who can spend some time studying the laws and procedures,” currently in use and make recommendations for the near-future, including how Travis County uses electronic voting machines.

 

Travis County has been using the same Hart Intercivic voting machines for seven years. Some Hart systems reportedly had problems with single party voting in Texas and several other states. DeBeauvoir said the machines had a minimum lifespan of ten years.

 

Karen Renick from Vote Rescue came to the meeting to share her concerns about the Hart Intercivic machines. “We maintained that secret vote counting done by machines is not transparent,” she said. “Therefore, we promote hand counted paper ballots with enhanced security measures.”

 

DeBeauvoir said federal money would partly determine when the county can afford new voting machines. “We should know whether the federal government is going to ask us to do this,” she said. “Then, if the federal government offered us reimbursement for going to a different kind of voting system, we could absolutely take advantage of that.”

 

DeBeauvoir said it was important that the 25-member group be diverse. “I’d like a broad cross-section of people from Travis County,” she said. “I’d like to have Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, and Green Party members. We are also in partnership with the city of Austin and the Austin Independent School District. We would certainly want them to contribute to the study group.”

 

The subject of who would serve on the study group triggered a debate. Courtroom regular Ronnie Reeferseed asked DeBeauvoir how ordinary citizens, like himself, could serve on the committee. The clerk said that she would be appointing members at her discretion.

 

At that point, Commissioner Pct. 2 Sarah Eckhardt cut in. “I would suggest something different,” she said. “I think that if a citizen wants to participate, they should actually contact their commissioner and express their desire and willingness to serve, and their specific interests and skill sets.”

 

DeBeauvoir agreed with that. “The idea is that it’s open,” she told Reeferseed and the court. “If you want to contribute your time, talk to us.”

 

DeBeauvior emphasized that the county needs experts, as well as citizens, on the group. “I think it’s incredibly important that we have engineers and computer security experts,” she said.

 

Commissioner Pct. 1 Ron Davis told DeBeauvoir that “whoever’s on this committee, my goodness, I’m going to look over it with a fine-toothed comb.”

 

Vote Rescue brought a line-by-line, page-long list of suggested revisions to the study group outline. They wanted to add requirements for “secure” and “transparent” machines and processes, and sought to qualify or eliminate praise for the current methods and system. “I think the problem that we had with this language was that it assumes that there’s been an apparent history of success,” said Renick. “Our coalition disagrees that there are no imminent problems or that no emergency action needs to be taken. We believe wholeheartedly that emergency action must be taken.”

 

Another issue of contention was whether or not vendors could make presentations to the group. In general, people at the meeting agreed they didn’t want to favor particular vendors, but some argued that eliminating their voices altogether could be detrimental. Ultimately, commissioners declined to take action on that matter immediately.

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