Voters Statewide and Local Report Problems with Electronic Voting Machines

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Issues with electronic voting systems statewide has some comparing the situation to a plotline from the ABC series “Scandal.”

As record numbers of voters hit the polls during early voting, reports statewide and locally have begun to trickle in regarding malfunctions in electronic voting machines.

In some areas, like Harris County, voters have reported that their votes for Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke were changed to incumbent Ted Cruz when they voted straight party ticket.

Writer Leah McElrath, who voted in Harris County, detailed what she saw in a series of tweets.

 

Martha Merino told me that she voted at the Friendswood City Hall, and experienced the same thing.

“I voted straight ticket and it did that to me. I then found checked, triple checked before I cast my ballot,” she said.

Another reader told me her husband attempted to vote straight Democrat Tuesday morning in Richardson, and it switched to straight Republican. They alerted an elections judge, she said. Collin and Dallas counties do not use the same system that has been blamed for many of the issues.

The Secretary of State’s office issued a statement this week that laid the blame squarely on user error, angering some voters and officials, who said that one specific type of machine seemed to be the culprit – the Hart eSlate.

“We have heard from a number of people voting on Hart eSlate machines that when they voted straight ticket, it appeared to them that the machine had changed one or more of their selections to a candidate from a different party,” said Keith Ingram, Director of Elections. “This can be caused by the voter taking keyboard actions before a page has fully appeared on the eSlate, thereby de-selecting the pre-filled selection of that party’s candidate.”

Ingram said that the Hart eSlate system uses a keyboard with an enter button and a selection wheel. If a user presses the enter button and the selection wheel at the same time, it can force an error.

“It is important when voting on a Hart eSlate machine for the voter to use one button or the other and not both simultaneously, and for the voter to not hit the ‘Enter’ button or use the selection wheel button until a page is fully rendered,” Ingram said. “A voter should note the response to the voter’s action on the keyboard prior to taking another keyboard action. It is also important for the voter to verify their selections are correct before casting their ballot.”

The Hart eSlate

Fort Bend County election administrator John Oldham told Houston station ABC-13 that the problem isn’t a new one — and that they’ve complained before.

“We’ve heard from voters over a number of elections about this,” Oldham said, adding that he’s seen the problem for years, and even told the Secretary of State’s office about it years ago.

“It’s not a glitch, it’s a user-induced problem that comes from the type of system that we have,” Oldham said. “I think both sides could be equally hurt.”

Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa wasn’t particularly thrilled — to put it mildly — with the response from Secretary of State Rolando Pablos’ office.

“The first step in solving a problem is recognizing that you have one. And the Texas Secretary of State’s office has one,” he said. “This is not a new problem (italics theirs), their office knew about potential flaws in their voting machines and chose to ignore them for years.”

“Instead of owning up to their mistake, Texas’ Republican government blamed voters and did nothing,” he added.

Austin-based Hart reiterated that the problem was user error. According to the Associated Press, the state last certified the eSlate systems in 2009.

The eSlate system is used in about 80 counties, including Tarrant County, which uses the Hart JBC system as well.

Dallas County uses the ES&S IVotronic system, while Collin County uses the Premier Accu-Vote system.

Denton uses another Hart system, the Verity system, which is newer.

The secretary of state said that it has no legal authority to force Hart or any other vendor to upgrade their voting systems as long as the systems are in compliance with state and federal law.

Of course, it may seem that after this year, the problem could go away, since straight ticket voting will no longer be an option starting in 2020, thanks to a bill Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law in 2017.

However, by Tuesday several more voters in Dallas and Collin counties were murmuring about a completely different malfunction — one that didn’t involve straight ticket voting —  than eSlate users were experiencing. Some reached out to us, or spoke about it on social media.

“I  went to vote in Wylie at the Smith Library,” said Carrie Duck. “I inserted my card into the machine and decided to vote per candidate instead of a straight ticket.”

“The first option was for US Senate and as I chose ‘Beto O’Rourke’ an ‘x’ appeared in the ‘Ted Cruz’ box,” she said. “I corrected it and went on.”

“This occurred a few more times on this page — where I selected the Democratic candidate and it selected the Republican candidate — but I was able to correct my choices,” she continued. “I then went to the next page but being a little OCD I wanted to go back to page 1 to confirm that all my choices were correct.”

“When I hit ‘BACK’ the machine locked up. The selection closest to the ‘BACK’ button also defaulted to a Republican candidate as well,” Duck said. “At this point, I called the election judge over and she shut my machine down, canceled out my vote, issued me a new card and I chose a new machine.”

“This time I chose straight party and did confirm my selections on the summary page,” she concluded.

A voter in University Park described a somewhat different scenario (which is understandable, since Collin and Dallas counties use different machines) where she selected her choices on the left-hand side of the screen, and when she moved to the right side, her choices on the left began to change.

She said changed the way she touched the far right of the screen, and the correct candidates would be chosen without changing her choices on the left side. But when she reviewed her ballot at the end, at least seven of her choices had been changed to their opponent. She went back to change the candidates, reviewed her ballot, and her vote had switched to the opponent again.

She went through the review process four times in total before her ballot was correct.

That voter also talked to poll workers, and then took a further step of reporting the issue to Dallas County elections, as well as a non-profit that serves as a watchdog for election integrity.

At least one more person said a similar scenario happened at a different Dallas County polling location.

“It happened to me last year,” said another Dallas County voter.

As more people said similar things had happened to them, combined with the straight party voting issues in Harris, Ft. Bend and Tarrant counties, some were wondering if Texas had an Olivia Pope-style situation, referring to a plotline in the ABC show “Scandal,” where a president won his election after voting machines in one town were rigged to throw the vote his direction.

Experts say that despite the talk of Russians hacking, age is more of a factor in voting machine malfunctions than something as nefarious as statewide rigging.

“If you were actually trying to rig an election, it would be a very stupid thing to do, to let the voter know that you were doing it,” Larry Norden, with the Brennan Center for Justice in New York, told NPR’s Pam Fessler in 2016.

Norden told Fessler that the likely problem is that the voting machines are old — more than a decade old in some places — and rely on outdated technology from the 90s to calibrate the touchscreens.  And the sealant used to attach the screen to the machine also begins to deteriorate, causing it to become misaligned.

“Over time, as people vote, that calibration becomes less and less accurate,” Norden explained. And it can happen as rapidly as a day — a full day of busy voters can impact the accuracy of a machine that was just fine that morning.

But JJ Pearce grad Dan Wallach, who is now computer science professor at Rice and expert on election security issues, says that it’s not wrong to worry about whether Texas elections are vulnerable to hackers.

“From a security perspective, the systems that we use, these electronic voting systems, were never engineered with the threat model of foreign nation-state actors,” Wallach told Texas Monthly. “I have no idea if anybody’s planning to exploit them, but there’s no question that the vulnerabilities are present.”

And Wallach isn’t the only one worried. The U.S. House Committee on House Administration included Texas in a list of the “Top 18 Most Vulnerable States.”

“The reason why I suspect they listed Texas … is that a substantial number of Texans, including me here in Houston, vote on paperless electronic machines that are difficult to audit, difficult to secure, and [that] many other states have banned,” Wallach said.

Collin, Dallas, Denton, and Tarrant counties all use this type of machine — a direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting machine, which does not generate any kind of backup paper trail that would provide evidence of what a voter actually pushed on the touchscreen.

At the end of the day, some voters told us that they insist on a paper ballot to avoid all the angst and worry the electronic option can wield.

“I always do paper,” said Megan Stewart.

But Ingram — and other officials — are quick to stress that it’s never a bad idea to double check that ballot, and immediately report issues to an election worker.

“As a reminder, voters should always carefully check their review screen before casting their ballots,” he said. “If a voter has any problems, they should notify a poll worker immediately so the issues can be addressed and reported.”

Have you experienced issues while early voting? Let us know!

Bethany Erickson is the education and public policy writer for CandysDirt.com. She is also the Director of Audience Engagement for Candy’s Media Group. She is a member of the Online News Association, the Education Writers Association, the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences, and the Society of Professional Journalists, and is the 2018 NAREE Gold winner for best series. Contact her at bethany@candysdirt.com.