This November, Texas voters may be less surprised by what’s on their ballots than by what their ballots look like.
Dozens of counties across the state—including Collin, Dallas, and Tarrant—are rolling out brand-new, “hybrid” voting systems that combine paper-based and electronic balloting.
With hybrid systems, voters use an electronic touch screen to mark paper ballots, which are then counted using a separate tabulating machine. Voters can confirm their selections on paper before scanning their ballots for electronic counting, and election officials have a paper record to use for audits and recounts.
Electronic ballot-marking eliminates stray marks and over-votes (marking more than one choice in a race) that can make it difficult or impossible to interpret a voter’s intent. The systems include multiple security features and are not connected to the internet.
“Russia cannot tie into this voting equipment,” Collin County Elections Administrator Bruce Sherbet said at a training class for election workers last week, adding that the rollout has been very smooth during early voting.
Hybrid Voting Systems
Two paper-based hybrid systems are certified for use in Texas by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission and Texas Secretary of State’s office:
- ExpressVote by Election Systems & Software (ES&S), certified last November, and
- Verity Duo by Austin-based Hart Intercivic, just approved in July 2019.
Collin spent $10 million on its new equipment, Tarrant $11 million, and Dallas $30 million.
Denton County uses a different Hart Verity system, introduced in 2017, that prints paper ballots on demand at the polls, which voters mark by hand before scanning them into a tabulating machine.
How Hybrids Work
After checking in at the polls, qualified voters receive a thermal-paper ballot card.
- Voters insert the paper into a ballot-marking machine and make their selections using a touch screen.
- The machine prints the selections on the paper ballot, which the voter can review.
- Voters scan their ballot into a separate tabulating machine that counts the votes.
- Votes are stored electronically, while the paper record drops into a ballot box locked inside the tabulating machine.
Collin County created a video showing the voting process using the ES&S ExpressVote system:
Tarrant County created a similar video showing the Hart Verity Duo system:
Why Hybrids, Why Now
In the past year, counties across the state have been buying new voting equipment to replace aging systems that have been used for well over a decade. Most were purchased not long after passage of the federal Help America Vote Act in 2002 that set new standards for electronic voting and allocated funds to help states purchase compliant equipment.
At the same time, bipartisan mistrust of all-electronic voting machines has been growing since rampant allegations of “hacking” and “vote-flipping” during the 2016 and 2018 elections, though such vote tampering has never been proven. An August poll of Texans found over 80 percent of both Democrats and Republicans favor voting machines that print a paper backup of the ballot.
Additionally, an October 2017 opinion by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office expanded the definition of “direct recording electronic” (DRE) voting machines to include hybrid systems that use electronic devices to mark paper ballots. This was significant, as it allowed counties that want to use countywide voting—which requires use of DREs—to choose hybrid systems.
Finally, with a high-turnout presidential election looming in 2020, county elections officials saw the November 5 constitutional amendment election as an opportunity to give new equipment and procedures a trial run in a slower-paced setting.
Adding another surprise for local voters, Dallas and Tarrant counties are also using countywide vote centers for the first time on November 5. With countywide voting, Election Day voters can cast ballots at any polling location in the county, meaning no more provisional ballots for voters who go to the wrong polling place.
Countywide vote centers also allow counties to dramatically reduce the number of Election Day polling locations, a significant cost savings. Dallas and Tarrant both have more than 1 million registered voters in over 700 voting precincts. Election observers are watching to see if the state’s biggest counties are prepared to successfully implement the program.
Collin County has used countywide voting since 2009 and now serves over half a million voters in more than 200 voting precincts with about 70 countywide polling places.
No voting system is fool-proof, and election workers as well as voters will need time to adjust to the new systems and processes. Regardless of the system, though, what’s important is that Texans make their voices heard by going to the polls and casting informed votes.
In addition to 10 proposed amendments to the Texas Constitution, some North Texas voters also have key local elections on their ballots, including hundreds of millions in bond debt that will burden local property taxpayers for years to come.
Early voting is underway now through November 1. Election Day is Tuesday, November 5.