Thursday, November 09, 2006

Bad, Bad Voters

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.


  1. I hope that the people of Tom Green county will come together in a concerted effort to ensure that we are not bullied into accepting electronic voting machines as our only means to cast a vote. At that point we might as well just stay home at election time and because our votes will mean absolutely nothing. I am astounded that Abilene and other places so easily submitted to having their right to vote nullified. There have already been demonstrations in some elections that a certian percentage of votes cast for one candidate went to the opposing candidate. The software can be programmed to do anything, and yet no one can even take a peek if questions arise? Totally absurd! This is not a matter of an elderly electorate being leery of using newfangled technology --- Let's keep our senses about us and realize that we must awaken to the NUMEROUS ways in which America is being dismantled.

  2. We will keep fighting for elections where every voter gets to vote and their votes get counted accurately and securely. At a minimum that means right now keeping the paper ballot as a prefered method.

    I am getting tired of complaints about the amount of time it takes to get a good count. First, most of that points to inadequate planning, especially when you look at the news stories and editorials about E-voting problems. Second, I much prefer a 100% accurate count to an early count that is wrong.

  3. Jim,
    You know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I oppose electronic voting. But, in this article "Four Strikes and You Should be Out" I fear that you are misrepresenting and/or do not have all of your facts straight.
    I am not here to defend Mike Benton totally but to say that he is not alone in the blame for the events in any of the past elections and/or recounts. As past Republican County Chairman I can tell you that both Mikes and I had considerable disagreements about paper ballots and electronic voting.
    In the primaries we had scanners for each precinct that were shared by both parties with very few problems excluding closing codes and delivery of equipment. The complaints from Brown and Benton at that time was the cost of renting trucks, paying employees, and other expenses involved with delivering the equipment to the polling places and getting it “set up”. Rented trucks were damaged and equipment was mishandled because of the lack of training. This was an added pressure to Mike Benton that he did not appreciate and an expense that Mike Brown did not anticipate. Their argument was that Abilene did not do it that way. We are not Abilene. I can provide you responses from county chairs throughout the state that contradict the opinion that we were the only ones that rented trucks or had expenses to deliver equipment. There are reports of counties that had lawsuits filed against them because paper ballots were not furnished to the voters.
    If the scanner that was being used was smaller and slower than the ones used before I have to question who approved the purchase of this new scanner - as far as I know the scanner was not new. Why was this scanner different and new?
    I will disagree totally with Mr. Benton about the machines malfunctioning. During the primary, after the Hart associates did arrive and analyze the problems we were having, it was a consensus of the people involved, both parties and election workers, that a lack of proper training, lack of response from Hart and several other factors were involved. The blame could not be placed on any one position or person. The Hart associates were able to prove their equipment.
    If you can find access to the minutes of the Commissioners Court I think you will find that the Democrat chairman at that time, and I, asked for scanners for both parties for the primaries. We were denied. Had the commissioners approved our request there would have been no shortage of scanners. But remember they would have to pay the transport fees for the equipment to the polling places and not have the extra monies that they enjoyed supposedly for training.
    In reference to the amount of paper ballots that were printed, I too am at a loss at why the amount was so low. But again, your facts are wrong. We did have to print and deliver more ballots to many of the precincts in the primary. This again supports…. “Why %25?”. But where were the county chairmen that should have been insuring that there were enough ballots available in the general election? Who made the decision for that amount? Was it the administrator? Was it the county Judge?
    I will take the blame for the lack of ballots ordered in the primary.
    In reference to the early voting ballots being counted before 7:00 p.m. you must remember that the equipment used to manufacture the ballots is the same equipment used to count the ballots. Again this goes back to management and who is responsible. In the primary, it was human error (lack of training, lack of response to training, etc), and some equipment error. We did find in the primary that judges not following procedures and equipment programming were about 50/50. I take exception to the training that was offered to the Republican judges and clerks. They were offered more than one chance to train and many did not respond. If a judge is not comfortable with the training that they have received, I consider it their fault for the ignorance if they do not ask for more help. It is the responsibility of the party to train their judges to be the best that they can be for their party.
    Your reference to phone numbers being available is one that I feel is arguable. The forms for elections that are to be posted are standard and usually provide the state contact number for complaints to the state. I will choose to make no comment on why you were not provided with other phone numbers as in the past.
    I must apologize for my laughter at workers being assigned to other precincts. You have no idea what it is like to even get people to work in the elections much less in their own precinct. Be thankful that there were workers in the polling places.
    Now for my main questions. Where and how did Mike Benton gain so much power that he can force this county to go electronic? When did he become so influential that he can tell the commissioners how to spend the taxpayer money? When did the commissioner’s court give him, or Molly Taylor, the money to operate the elections office efficiently? Why is it all Mike Benton’s fault?
    I will say again that I am not in total defense of Mike Benton, but any skeptics might want to take a serious look at other factors. I placed many complaints with the court that were ignored and I am sure Mike did the same.

  4. Diane McWilliams said... I know that I will continue to request a paper ballot. Not only do I not trust them, but two E-Slates per voting place is not enough, especially during peak voting times. I also wanted to mention that in May, the Veribest school board election had some discrepencies with the scanner set to read ballots with "three" choices marked, not "up to three". It ended up not making a difference in the recount, but it could have. I think that making sure voting is secure and accurate is more important than trying out the latest technology craze.