The voters of Tom Green County spoke loudly on an issue that was not even on the ballot. Over 50% of them requested paper ballots, rejecting the new E-voting system the county had chosen under pressure of the Help America Vote Act. I was one of many who raised questions about E-voting in general and the locally used Hart Intercivic system. The opposition to electronic machines was bipartisan and included many people with direct knowledge of the new system. At a recent county Republican Executive Committee meeting the question was debated at length. At the end of the session the Chair, Russ Duerstine, asked the twenty some precinct chairs, nearly all of whom had conducted elections under both the electronic and paper systems, how many of them trusted the new system. Not a single hand went up.
The demand for paper ballots somehow caught the elections administration flat-footed. They went with an estimate of 25% paper, and obviously made no provision for that estimate being wrong, despite an early vote that had gone over a third paper. Many precincts ran out of paper ballots, some twice. Compounding this miscalculation, unlike the March Primary, our first adventure with this technology, the precincts were not given E-Scan readers to process and count paper ballots at the precinct level. All paper ballots went downtown to be counted there, apparently by hand. A Princeton study of Op-Scan paper balloting in Florida showed that such ballots counted in precinct yielded an error rate of under 1%, while the same ballots centrally counted resulted in 5-12% errors. This study was pointed out in my guest column of October.
Elections administrator Mike Benton seem to have the cure at hand. Benton was on KSAN news Wednesday saying “A number of counties in Texas do not offer paper ballots. We would hope to move in that direction.” So much for the voters' opinion. By his read, we are so many undisciplined puppies who have figuratively pooped in his house and he is telling us, “Bad Voter, bad, bad voter!” Presumably he won't be spanking us with a paper. County Judge Mike Brown was less direct about future intentions, but was quoted in the paper saying of the demand for paper ballots, “It's with the negative national media coverage of the electronic voting.”
There were problems with the E-Scan devices last March, but there were also problems with the E-Slate electronic machines, problems that became glaringly obvious during a recount that stretched over two weekends. Actually, in that recount, the paper ballots were the only part that went smoothly. One sure thing now is that we will have a recount of the only seriously contested local race, the Longest/Martinez JP1 office, with a 45 vote margin.
If you have not read Jack Cowan's lead editorial of Wednesday, “Electronic voting still too risky”, I recommend it. I suppose Jack and I should thank Judge Brown, he seems to have promoted us from local ink-stained wretches to national media. I would prefer that Brown and Benton listen to the electorate they represent. Really, it doesn't matter if they could prove the electronic system they stand by actually is error-free, imposing a system the voters obviously distrust does nothing to encourage the electorate to use it and believe in the ballot as the voice of the people. The arrogance inherent in Benton's quote in the face of a clear decision of the electorate is stunning.