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The eSlate issue

Everyone please take a deep breath.

Some straight-ticket voters have reported that voting machines recorded them selecting the candidate of another party for U.S. Senate, exposing a potential problem with the integrity of the state’s high-profile contest between U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and Congressman Beto O’Rourke and leading good government groups to sound the alarm.

Several Democratic voters, for example, have complained the voting system indicated they were about to cast a vote for Cruz, a Republican, instead of Democrat O’Rourke as they prepared to send it. Some said they were able to get help from staff at the polling place and change their votes back to what they intended before finalizing their ballots.

Most of the 15 to 20 people who have complained to the state so far said that their straight-ticket ballot left their vote for U.S. Senate blank, according to Sam Taylor, communications director for the Secretary of State. A spokesman for the Texas Civil Rights Project said the group has received about a half dozen complaints, mostly of Democratic straight ticket voters whose ballots erroneously included a vote for Cruz, and one Republican straight ticket voter whose ballot tabulated a vote for O’Rourke.

The problem occurs on the Hart eSlate voting machine when voters turn a selection dial and hit the “enter” button simultaneously, according to the state. Eighty-two of the 254 counties in Texas have these machines, although complaints have only come from Fort Bend, Harris, McLennan, Montgomery, Tarrant and Travis counties, according to Taylor.

The issue with the eSlate machine first surfaced in the 2016 presidential election. The Secretary of State’s office described it as user error at that time, and said the same of this year’s problems in an advisory sent to election workers issued this week.

“It does pop up from time to time,” said Taylor. Voters should “double and triple check and slow down” before casting their ballots, he said.

Although the state sent the advisory, the Civil Rights Project contends that more should be done to ensure voters understand the potential for wrongly recorded votes.

The group is pushing the state to post advisories to inform voters at the polls about the problem, and how to detect it.

“This is not an isolated issue but a symptom of a wider breakdown in Texas’s election systems,” said Beth Stevens, the organization’s voting rights director. “Texas voters should have full confidence that when they use a voting machine they are indeed casting their ballot of choice.”

I would dispute that this problem first surfaced in the 2016 election. We’ve heard a variation of problems like this going back to at least 2008. Here’s a post I wrote back then, in which there was confusion – some of which was being spread intentionally – about voting straight ticket and then clicking again on Obama/Biden, which of course would have the effect of canceling the vote in that race. This particular complaint may be relatively new, but reports of the voting machines not doing what the voters thought they were going to do have literally always been with us. It’s one part bad interface design, and one part user error.

The solution – for now – really is to review your ballot before you press the “cast vote” button. I do that in every election, because it’s always possible to not click what you thought you’d clicked, just like it’s possible to do that on your computer or tablet or cellphone. Election officials can and should do a more thorough job of educating voters about the voting machines – there are always new voters, and there are always voters who are not confident with electronic gadgets, and these people have as much right to vote the way they want to vote as anyone else – but the bottom line remains the same. Review your ballot before you commit to it, just like you review other transactions.

Here’s that advisory from the Secretary of State, and here’s the press release and letter to the SOS from the Texas Civil Rights Project. The TCRP is 100% correct that Texas needs to upgrade its voting machines, both to improve the interface and also to bolster security. As someone who works in cybersecurity, it’s unthinkable that we have voting systems that provide neither redundancy nor an audit trail. We know what a better system looks like, we just need a government that is willing to invest in it. We just need to vote in sufficient numbers to make that happen. The Trib has more.

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13 Comments

  1. John says:

    It drives me nuts that they keep calling this “user error.” Even if a user action is causing it, the term they are looking for is “bad interface design.”

  2. Will says:

    Considering ADA requirements for accessibility, the actual use interface isn’t all that terrible. I won’t say it’s modern or nice, but considering when it was developed and other factors that most people don’t consider, it could be a lot worse. (I’m looking at you, original MetroRail ticket machines.)

    As a software developer, I expect it’s much more likely to be a bug in the traditional sense rather than a design mistake. User input can come in at any time, but the software will only check for it and update it’s state at certain points in the program. It could be based on polling (no pun intended) where it asks the hardware, “hey, what buttons has the user pressed since the last time I asked”. It could also be event or interrupt driven, where the hardware sends a signal saying a button was pressed. This latter mode is more likely because the hardware doesn’t have to implement a buffer to remember anything; that makes it cheaper/simpler but moves the responsibility into the software domain.

    So when an interrupt signal comes in, it literally must interrupt whatever the software is doing at that moment or else it risks losing the event (think of someone pressing buttons quickly, and only some of them getting registered). This interrupt handler must be written to be fast, so that it doesn’t lose any button presses, and correct, so that it doesn’t corrupt the program state. It’s probably a bug in one or both of those requirements.

    A developer might write the handler to buffer events, in sequence, in memory; then another part of the software reads the sequence when it’s ready to handle user input. Another way, particularly on simple single-threaded (non-multitasking) machines, is to simply change the program state — like marking ballot selections — directly in the handler. That’s dangerous, because the handler can run at any time and interrupt another part of the program that was also manipulating the ballot state, such as marking all races for a particular party’s candidates. Code like that should disable the interrupts, temporarily, until it’s finished making changes — because it’s better to ignore a button press or two than to make improper state changes.

    I have no special knowledge of the easiest hardware or software, but that’s my suspicion. I tried marking straight ticket at first, and even altered some races afterward. Everything seemed correct and I did make sure not to move the wheel or press any buttons until the screen updated. Then again, I’m just one data point out of millions.

    Either way, without a verifiable paper record I have no way to know that what was displayed on screen was actually recorded accurately or at all, bugs or no.

  3. Sue says:

    Whn you have millions of voters voting, you are always going to have some degree of user error, and yes, it IS user error. You can’t get much simpler than the system we have here in Harris County. Not only that, but there are actually two opportunities to review your ballot. I was expecting the ballot to go to the end where the propositions are located when I voted straight party, but no, I had to scroll through each page of the ballot, hitiing “next”. This gave me the opportunity to review my ballot as I scrolled through looking for the propositions. Once I voted on the propositions, the machine then showed a summary of all my selections. I had 2 opportunities to review. In addition, the clerks are there to assist any voter who requests help. The voter does bear a certain degree of responsibility to review their ballot and if they need help, to request it. Not a whole lot more that can be done. These machines are not changing votes for just a handful of people. If there was a problem with the machine, it would be switching the votes on all the voters who used that machine, and since each party has equal representation in the number of clerks working each Early Voting site, believe me, if there was a real problem, they would be calling in to report these machines and they would be pulled offline. As far as a paper trail, there are already 3 separate records of each vote cast by the Hart system. Its an electronic trail. Paper anything is subject to fraud. Unfathomable in today’s digital age that anyone is advocating for paper ballots, paper trails, paper anything.

  4. Manny Barrera says:

    The Stan Stanart folks are out in force defending him.

    Point that many complains in 2016 with more folks voting.

  5. Manny Barrera says:

    not as many complaints in 2016

  6. matx says:

    “Its an electronic trail. Paper anything is subject to fraud. Unfathomable in today’s digital age that anyone is advocating for paper ballots, paper trails, paper anything.”

    What?!? you think electronic databases can’t be hacked and only paper is subject to fraud? Wow.

  7. Mainstream says:

    The biggest problem with paper systems is that voters sometimes vote for two candidates for a single position and thus invalidate that vote, and/or that someone can alter their ballot by adding a mark to that ballot, either in a contest they skipped or to invalidate a vote they tried to make. The Hart e-slate system does not allow you to vote for more than one candidate per office.

  8. Sue says:

    Harris County is not going back to a paper ballot, the county is way too large to handle counting paper ballots. And what about the environment? Many businesses are going to paperless receipts for goodness sake. People are more conscious about conservation these days to go back to wasting so much paper. And yes, it is easier to commit fraud with paper ballots.

  9. Manny Barrera says:

    All the Stan Stanart folks are here posting defending the racist that holds that office.

    From Stanart’s website, blaming Jewish people for everything bad, he needs to look in the mirror to see the fact of evil.

    “Make NO mistake, George Soros wants to control Harris County Elections and Stan Stanart is in his way. If Harris County, larger in population than 26 states, allows socialists like Soros to control our elections, then Texas is next. It is almost impossible for a Republican to win the White House without the 38 Electoral College votes from Texas.

    Stan needs your help TODAY to fight the millions that Soros and his allies plan to pour into Harris County. There are many more Flag Waving, defenders of the Constitution then those who support Soros’ world views, …”

  10. Manny Barrera says:

    face if evil

  11. Mainstream says:

    Manny: Soros is well-known as a funder of liberal causes. I doubt 1 in 10 Republicans even know he has Jewish heritage. I don’t believe he practices any religion, from news reports.

    To claim that any criticism of Soros reflects anti-Semitism is a stretch, even for your warped view of the world.

    No one would suggest the attacks on Pelosi indicate anti-Catholic sentiment.

  12. Manny Barrera says:

    Mainstream, For someone that called me crazy in as many words for stating historical facts, you have no basis for standing or giving your opinion that is based on lies that you or the far right crazies concoct.

    Look you and all those Trump lovers are racists, bigots, or worse. I try to ignore your stupidity but if you insist every time you post stupidity I will point it out.

    Let me point how stupid you are, ” I doubt 1 in 10 Republicans even know he has Jewish heritage.” That is a lie and should know it, Soros has been the Jewish Bogey Man for you bigots for years.

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2018/10/24/conspiracy-theories-about-soros-arent-just-false-theyre-anti-semitic/?utm_term=.9a5af70d0926