Houston Chronicle | Jan 21, 2008
By ALAN BERNSTEIN
In December, Colorado rejected the kind of touch-screen voting machines in wide use across Texas.
Ohio called for a return to paper ballots after deciding that the kind of click-wheel voting machine used in the Houston area, as well as the touch-screen model, were unreliable and too vulnerable to computer-savvy manipulation of election results.
California found in mid-2007 what it called serious security flaws in the same kinds of equipment.
Amid growing concern about glitches in electronic election systems, the states also are requiring that voting machines produce receipts of a sort so voters can check whether their ballot choices are recorded correctly.
Texas, however, plans no such scientific re-evaluation of its computerized voting machines. And the state has yet to require the ATM-style record known as a Voter-Verified Paper Audit Trail, though the Democratic and Republican state parties say in their platforms that Texas should use the technology.
Critics say Texas is merely behind the curve of buttressing public confidence in vote-counting as it gears up for the March 4 primaries and the November presidential elections.
But some election officials say there has been little demand for change in the state because Texas urban areas have had comparative success with the modern equipment due to their relatively early, and more gradual, use of the vote-count systems since 2001. They also say that the lack of evidence of voter fraud in the use of the systems should be reassuring.
Regardless, it’s balloting as usual in Texas, which is expected to record more than 7.5 million votes in the presidential election.
State Rep. Dwayne Bohac, R-Houston, is restless, though.
“We need to make sure voters have the maximum confidence in the voting process,” said the vice chairman of the House Elections Committee.
Bohac co-sponsored an unsuccessful bill last year to require the paper trail. County officials balked at the costs and logistics, he said.
House Speaker Tom Craddick has instructed the committee to collect information on the accuracy and security of the machines certified for use in Texas — and to look at whether the state should adopt the paper trail technology.
Private sector computer experts work with the state to test and certify voting equipment, but Bohac said that like the other states, Texas should circle back and see if the machinery meets up-to-date standards.
“A full, top to bottom evaluation would be an asset,” the lawmaker said. “This is an issue that continues to come up.”
It came up in November in Wharton County a few weeks after a voter saw, and election officials confirmed, that his ballot choices “flipped” from yes to no or no to yes in an election on state propositions.
The local Republican Party turned its back on the the iVotronic touch screen machines, manufactured by Election Systems & Software of Omaha, and in the March primary will use paper ballots, similar to standardized test forms tabulated by optical scanners.
Ivotronic touch screens or other ES&S products are used in Dallas, San Antonio and most counties in the state. The other big supplier of election equipment in Texas is Hart Intercivic of Austin, whose eSlate machines record the vote in Harris, Fort Bend and other counties.
Ohio last month expressed little confidence in the security of such equipment.
“In an era of computer-based voting systems, voters have a right to expect that their voting system is at least as secure as the systems they use for banking and communication,” Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner said.
Her statement contrasts with Texas Secretary of State Phil Wilson’s written responses to questions from the Houston Chronicle.
“I have confidence in the processes and systems currently in place,” he said, and his staff will continue to see if any improvements are needed.
He said the findings in other states should be taken seriously. But Wilson and Beverly Kaufman, who administers elections in Harris County, are among the Texas officials who say those studies reflect erratic equipment changes and shifting standards unlike what has been seen in the Lone Star State.
Wilson said his staff has rejected the use of a paper trail because of concerns about the equipment’s potential malfunctions, errors and paper jams.
And with machines that generate a backup paper record for each voter to examine, he said, there may be a way after an election is over for someone to find out how individual voters voted.
“The office believes it is better to err on the side of ballot security than risk subjecting a person’s record to public scrutiny,” Wilson stated.
And yet Wilson also said he will follow the Legislature’s guidance on the issue.
Bohac, the elections committee vice chairman who advocates the paper trail technology, said he looks forward to scheduling hearings that will include testimony from Wilson.
Manufacturers, meanwhile, are appealing the Colorado rejections or working to dissolve some of the complaints in time for the November elections.
ES&S and Hart Intercivic also say that the security tests in other states were conducted without the human factor: election officials and monitors and precinct judges who work to safeguard hi-tech equipment and the results on election winners and losers.
With proper training of election administrators on the use of touch-screen and click-wheel tablets, the companies say, votes will be counted with the highest degree of accuracy.
“We want to make sure we are building something that meets the standards and serves the voters,” said Peter Lichtenheld cq of Hart Intercivic, supplier of eSlate machines. “We are just as passionate that every vote counts as the naysayers.”