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Travis County developing first electronic/paper ballot voting system

Monday, July 21, 2014 by Beth Cortez-Neavel

The Travis County Elections Office is developing a new dual electronic and paper ballot voting system with an estimated price tag of $8.1 million. Despite County Commissioners’ cost concerns, County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir, who is heading the effort, said Tuesday that it’s not the price tag that matters. The concern should be about getting other counties on board and bringing the voting process back into public hands, she said.

The STAR Voting system – which stands for Secure, Transparent, Auditable and Reliable – is the first of its kind, nationwide. The idea, De Beauvoir said, is to provide a high-security, streamlined voting system that leaves voters with more comfort about casting their ballot.

DeBeauvoir and her staff have been speaking with other counties, with the help of the Texas Conference of Urban Counties, about buying into the project idea. But DeBeauvoir is not seeking collaboration just for the money’s sake – which she said is “a little thing” to think about as part of the whole process – but as stakeholders in the design and development process.

The goal, she said, is to change the entire voting marketplace, and to do it quickly, since current machines bought under the 2002 Help America Vote Act are nearing the end of their shelf life.

“The concept of STAR Vote is to change the world of voting so that we end up with a voting system that we own, not the private vendor, and that we control,” DeBeauvoir told the Monitor. “Paying for this is pretty far down on the list, quite frankly. What’s really important is getting something that is designed by and for counties that we can easily use…. It’s not a profit–driven world. We shouldn’t be making money off voting.”

The $8.1 million estimated cost of the project – $5.6 million for programming and $2.5 million per county for equipment to operate the system – would be a far cry from any certified voting machines bought today. Most machines come from private vendors and cost upward of $3,500 per machine, plus any accompanying costs, like updates and routine maintenance.

Pct. 1 Commissioner Ron Davis and Pct. 2 Commissioner Bruce Todd both asked if federal or state money would trickle down to help the effort.

“I still would like to see some type of strong effort placed on our federal government… and also our senators here in the State of Texas, since everyone is talking about a good, accurate voting system, to put their money where their mouth is and to help Travis County go forward with a strong voting system,” Davis said.

Todd also asked when there would be a clearer idea of the money other counties would be willing to put forward. DeBeauvoir said it was a “chicken and egg” situation. She said other counties also want to have a more clearly defined plan before investing.

“We need to make sure we’ve done everything possible… to make sure that we hold cost down to Travis County as much as we can,” Todd said.

After the session, DeBeauvoir told the Monitor she appreciates the Commissioners prodding to look into federal and state aid, but that it’s not likely to happen.

“I see no hope that that is going to happen,” she said. “Nevertheless they want me to continue to make sure that I have overturned all those rocks. But I see no hope in that area. The same is true with state government. I don’t see the state of Texas coming to help county government in all of us having to purchase voting systems.”

DeBeauvoir began the project back in 2009, when she formed a study group to look at election issues and voting machines on the market. The group told her they couldn’t find anything suitable.

DeBeauvoir, also inspired by a 2006 lawsuit filed by Travis County voters claiming voting machines unreliable, wanted an inexpensive system where the public could count on their vote being counted accurately and with discretion.

STAR Vote has a five-step process. Voters will check in per usual, confirm their address and show their ID, and get a barcode token. A Controller will scan the token and issue each voter with a unique authorization number. The voter takes that number to a tablet screen in the private voting booth, where they select their candidates. Then the ballot is printed out so the voter can double-check their selections. The voter then drops their printed ballot into the ballot box, which scans the ballot and matches it with the tablet selections.

No vote counts until the ballot reaches the ballot box, so if a voter finds a mistake on their printout, they can get another authorization number and vote correctly. Only the correct vote will count. The entire process is encrypted.

But some counties will need more convincing, DeBeauvoir said to the Commissioner’s Court. Of the 12 to 15 counties that the Elections Office has been speaking to, including Bexar, Tarrant and Dallas counties, most are worried about the paper trail. They’re worried it’s too expensive and that paper is too difficult to manage.

“They say to Travis County is that we live in a bubble… and that the security for these voting systems over the last 10 years proves that we’ve had no problems,” DeBeauvoir said. “That what we’re doing is overkill that it’s really unnecessary. That we don’t have to go to all this expense and trouble to have the extra paper trail.”


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