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Travis County pursues new voting machines

Very, very interesting.

Dana DeBeauvoir

With the nation facing what a January government report described as an “impending crisis” in voting technology, officials in Travis County are taking matters into their own hands by seeking to create a unique, next-generation system of voting machines.

The efforts put Travis County, along with Los Angeles County in California, at the cutting edge of a race against time to create an alternative voting technology system.

The new machines would have voters use off-the-shelf electronic equipment like tablets, but also provide them with receipts and printed ballots to allow for easier auditing. The development and implementation process won’t be finished in time for the 2016 elections, though officials hope to have the system ready by the 2018 gubernatorial race.

[...]

Some election administrators have said the status quo will likely fall apart within a few years. Across the country, “it’s all just a guessing game at this point: How long can we last?” said Dana DeBeauvoir, the Travis County clerk.

Three years ago, DeBeauvoir decided that something had to change. “I said, ‘Okay, I’m fed up. I’m going to design my own system.’” Part of her frustration stemmed from complaints lodged against the county that she felt blamed officials for things beyond their control. Travis County voters filed a lawsuit in 2006 alleging that electronic voting machines lacked reliability and security. The case was dismissed by the Texas Supreme Court in 2011.

After deciding to create a new system, DeBeauvoir gathered a citizens’ study group, and then a panoply of experts, to iron out the details.

The group is now close to finishing the design of a prototype known as the STAR (Security, Transparency, Auditability and Reliability) Voting System. The county intends to issue a request for proposals within a couple of months and hopes to select a winning bid by the end of the year, DeBeauvoir said.

[...]

The designs already posted on the Travis County clerk’s website lay out a multi-step process: A voter checks in, signs a roster and receives a ticket. Then, she gives the ticket to a poll worker to get a unique ballot code from a ballot control station, which sends information to a voting device. At the device, she makes her choices, prints out a completed ballot and deposits it in a ballot box with a scanner. She also receives a receipt that allows her to check online the next day to ensure the ballot was counted.

All the devices communicate with each other to update and confirm data. To ensure security, the system employs cryptography that “has never been done before” in voting technology, DeBeauvoir said.

The printed paper ballot is particularly crucial, as it addresses one of the principal criticisms of the existing electronic systems. The touchscreen machines common in many counties lack “a paper trail that actually captures the intent of the voter so that you can audit the machines,” said Alex Russell, a University of Connecticut professor of computer science and mathematics and faculty member at the school’s Center for Voting Technology Research. During recounts, auditors can only double-check what the machines say, without any way to verify that the machines reflect voters’ choices.

The presentation is here. It’s pretty technical in places, but the main gist of it is easy to understand and well-summarized by the Trib story. There’s an accompanying video of the presentation on this page, with the presenter being Rice University computer science prof Dan Wallach, who has been studying this stuff for years. Other materials are here on the Travis County Clerk website.

As noted, the STAR-Vote collaboration is close to issuing an RFP for this. One key requirement for the hardware will be sufficient battery life – Election Day and some early voting days last for 12 hours, so your voting machines will need to do so as well. The collaboration will be approaching other counties to participate, which will allow for cost-sharing while making the RFP more attractive to vendors since there would be more potential customers for their proposed devices. I need to check and see if Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart has any interest in this. Our eSlate machines are as old and outdated as Travis County’s are, after all. One other potential hurdle is that this idea is very new and contains aspects that are not addressed by existing federal laws, so either the laws will need to be updated (as if Congress is capable of doing that) or waivers will need to be obtained. The latter ought to be doable, but as with anything new and unprecedented you never know what potholes may exist in the pathway. Be that as it may, this is a thorough and thoughtful design that addresses all kinds of concerns and would put electronic voting machines on a much more sustainable path. I look forward to seeing how the RFP process goes. What do you think about this?

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2 Comments

  1. mollusk says:

    I think this is an absolutely dandy idea. I wouldn’t hold my breath about Stan Stanart joining in, however – the public records that you have view on a monitor if you go to his office STILL aren’t available over the internet unless you know to subscribe to (and pay for) a third party service.

    This is in contrast to such free spending liberal bastions as Fort Bend and Montgomery Counties, where those records have been available to view on line for free for quite some time now. Or for that matter the District Clerk’s office in Harris County, who’s had civil court and many family court records on line for free for years.

  2. Gage says:

    It’s an improvement for sure. I’ve never been comfortable with electronic voting. It’s easy, yes but as the professor noted, there is no paper trail to refer to if there are questions later.

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