AUSTIN — This week, Travis County Commissioners voted to purchase new voting machines and software. The machines have more security features and create a paper trail. In Texas This Week, Ashley Goudeau sits down with Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir to discuss the new system and the future of voting in Texas.
Ashley Goudeau: Good morning, Dana. Thank you for joining us this morning. Tell us a little bit about the new system.
Dana DeBeauvoir: "Good morning. We are so happy to finally be in this position. Because for so long, Travis County voters have been asking for a voting system that gives them a paper trail. And finally, that's what we're going to be able to give them. A year from now, our voters will be voting on an electronic voting system with a paper trail, and that represents best of both worlds. So they get the benefits of electronic voting, which is the speed and the accuracy and the benefits that it brings to voters with disabilities so that they can vote privately and independently with a paper trail that becomes an artifact that we can use for audits and recounts. And something that the voter can use to make sure what gets cast in the ballot box is exactly what they intended. So this is ... we're finally here. And it has been quite the fight to get this in the marketplace."
Goudeau: So let's dive into some of the issues. Why do you feel voters have been asking for something with a paper trail for so long? What's their concern?
DeBeauvoir: "Well, they're concerned that there may be some mistake that happens within the creation of the electronic record that doesn't really reflect their intent. It's not going to represent exactly what they want, the way they wanted to cast their ballot. And they feel like they have no way of verifying it. The paper trail, which is a voter verified paper trail, gives them the chance to say, alright, this is an electronic record, which has a lot of benefits, isn't any good to me unless I can verify it. Paper trail gives them that chance. So it really is best of both worlds. We're so happy."
Goudeau: And so how does it work? You go in to cast our ballot and what exactly happens? Take us step by step.
DeBeauvoir: "OK, one, two, three, first of all it, will look the same in terms of checking in and finding out what your ballot style is as it relates to your neighborhood. You'll still be able to vote anywhere you want during early voting and election day. Then, once you've qualified as a voter, an election judge is going to hand you a long looking, it almost looks like part of an envelope, kind of a long card. That card's going to have a serial number on it that says what your ballot style is. So the one for your neighborhood. You're going to take that card and you're going to go over to a computer screen, sort of looks like a touch screen, and you're going to insert the card into the face of this screen. It's going to bring up your ballot. So it's going to look very much like what we have now. Not a lot of changes with that. Once you insert the card, it's going to bring up your ballot style you're going to vote touch screen to make your selections. When you're all finished, it's going to give you a summary screen. So you're going to make sure everything you've picked is going to be, you know, exactly the way you want it. There is no memory in this touch screen. So then what you do is you tell it to print the card. You compare the card with what is on the screen. The two should match. If they don't, if you've made a mistake or you think the machine has made a mistake, you just say 'I have an error here.' You take the paper card, the paper ballot, back to the judge and you say 'I'd like another one please.' In Texas you're allowed three of those. Simple error, you get another card, you start over and once again, you create that card to be what you want as a voter. Once you're completely finished with it then you indicate that you're ready to vote and you carry the card over to the ballot box. And you put the paper ballot into the ballot box. At that point and time, an electronic record is created from the paper. And then we use the electronic record to create fast, accurate results for election night. The paper ballot stays in the ballot box and can be used for audits on election night or after the election. And if a candidate wanted to ask for a recount, we can use the paper artifact to support recounts. All of that is much, much better for assuring voters that everything that they put into the electronic system actually is what they intended."
Goudeau: It seems like a few more steps for you and the people on your end, but you don't mind?
DeBeauvoir: "No, no I don't mind at all. And yes, paper's tedious, it's going to take up a little bit more room in the polling place because we'll have this extra ballot box, but this is what voters have been asking for for years. And government should give them what they want. So we're finally, you know, going to get this and it's been a long slog and I'm really thrilled. And I can't wait to make use of this paper. Because the first thing we need to do is teach our voters how to use their paper ballot. Because it's going to ask them to do a job in voting that they've never had to do before. So we're going to have to go through a big education program, teaching them how to use it and then of course it's going to be a new area for us too because we're going to use the paper after the fact, behind the scenes to audit the election to make sure that in fact, the electronic copy of the paper and the paper record do match. So all of those behind the scenes audits will be new as well and we'll be in the process of developing all of that new testing after the fact."
Goudeau: In a time where we are often hearing about claims of voter fraud and voter security, why is this so important?
DeBeauvoir: "Well, we want to have a system that is unassailable. It's much more than voter confidence. This is about proving up an election. In the computer science world, this is what you call end-to-end verifiability. From the point and time when you build the inventory of the ballots for each voter until the time when you've finished the election and prepared the canvas, you want everything in between to be provable, to be justifiable. And in order to that you have to have an artifact to audit. All of our auditors listening to us will completely understand what that means. So it's really important to have something that we can justify our assumptions that the election is going as planned."
Goudeau: Why did it take such a long time to get to this point? What was the hold up?
DeBeauvoir: "Well, that's a very good question. Why was it so, why was the marketplace so stubborn? Well, it is a very good because why with everybody crying for a paper record, why was it that the elections manufacturers were not giving voters what they were asking for. Or for that matter elections administrators. It was very frustrating and I think there are several reasons. None of them are going to make a lot of sense to us because it has to do with a very small market place, there's only a few companies that build voting systems. And of course, they are in a for-profit world. So, you know, none of that matters to us. What matters to us is, you know, we wanted a paper trail, they weren't producing it. So in Travis County, we decided we were no longer going to wait and I started developing STAR-Vote. You may have heard of STAR-Vote. STAR-Vote is a system we were going to build ourselves that had, not only a paper trail, but some additional security. And in addition to that it was going to be open source software so it was going to have a lot of other benefits including costs for the system. I tried to build it and ultimately I ran into problems in the marketplace with finding one of these vendors or a set of vendors who were willing to build a voting system like that. I got no takers. So we ultimately had to abandon STAR-Vote but the good thing about it was STAR-Vote pushed this marketplace and ultimately encouraged these other vendors to come back with something that was almost like STAR-Vote so voters could get what they've been asking for. And so I am proud fo the fact STAR-Vote influenced the marketplace, pushed it forward so today we can finally have what we've been asking for for so long."
Goudeau: It's going to cost the county about $8 million, a little more than $8 million to purchase these new systems, to purchase these new machines. How does that compare to what the county has been spending on voting machines?
DeBeauvoir: "So what we have is old and aging. It was the best system on the market at the time, our e-slate system that we have. It's hanging in there just fine. It's showing no signs of age. But 17 years old for a voting system is old. So we, we're, you know, we're on it's last legs and we have used up most of its value. So we do want to transition as soon as we can. That system in 2001 cost us about $6 million so it's always a little bit more expensive, everything is a little bit more expensive and we will also have some additional consumables because now we're going to add a paper trail to it. So we're going to have to purchase paper ballots and we're going to have to store and keep those paper ballots according to federal law for 22 months, to make sure we've got everything correct."
Goudeau: But you guys again are willing to take that on.
DeBeauvoir: "Yes! Oh absolutely! Because, again, it means for the future we will have unassailable elections. We'll have proof right there that everything matches. And voters can then say, it's not of feeling comfortable, it's a matter of proof."
Goudeau: And so with the new system, are there any other counties in Texas using them yet?
DeBeauvoir: "Not exactly, because this extra feature, this paper trail, was only certified for Texas in April 2017. So it's brand new. We are going to be among the first to have this kind of paper trail. So we're thrilled and I mean I kept saying to voters 'we're going to get this to you as fast as I can bring it to you' and voters have been incredibly patient about this. However, the company that manufactures this system has similar, previous products that are in 143 counties in Texas and in 43 other states, you know, throughout the United States. So, in some ways, the software that's been used to be the predecessor to this system is already well tested and well used throughout the United States. So we get that benefit. There are other counties who already have this paper audit trail in place, but there's not that many, there's just a few of us. And the voters that have used it in Texas, so far they love it."
The new machines will be used in Travis County polling places beginning with the November 2019 Constitutional election. The Clerk's office will launch a voter education campaign on the machines next Summer.