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Dana DeBeauvoir

More on the STAR Voting System

The Chron updates us on the latest in modern voting technology.

The drumbeat of election rigging and foreign hacking of voting machines have energized ongoing efforts to develop a new model of digital election equipment designed to produce instantly verifiable results and dual records for security.

Election experts say this emerging system, one of three publicly funded voting machine projects across the country, shows potential to help restore confidence in the country’s election infrastructure, most of which hasn’t been updated in more than a decade.

“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It’s taken years and years to get it done,” said Dana DeBeauvoir, the Travis County clerk and leader of the voting machine project. “Now that we’ve had this election, there’s renewed interest.”

A prototype of the system, dubbed STAR Vote, sits in an engineering lab at Rice University, and bidding is open for manufacturers who want to produce it wholesale. Similar efforts to innovate voting systems are in the works in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

“County clerks in these jurisdictions are the rock stars of running elections,” said Joe Kiniry, CEO of Free & Fair, an election systems supplier currently bidding on contracts to manufacture the designs of both Travis and Los Angeles counties. “If they have success in what they do, it will have, in my opinion, a massive impact on the whole U.S.”

Like any aging digital device, the voting machines are eventually bound to stumble, said Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. He pointed to Detroit, where the number of votes counted didn’t match the number of voters who signed in. And he noted that reports of machines flipping votes more likely result from aged touch screens than a conspiracy to rig the election.

Yet there is seldom space in county budgets to replace the machines, which cost usually between $3,000 and $5,000 each. The vast majority of electronic voting equipment was purchased with federal funds from the Help America Vote Act of 2002. Most money reached the states by 2004, and there’s no foreseeable second wave of federal aid.

“This is really an oncoming crisis,” said Norden, who interviewed more than 100 election officials for a 2015 report about aging voting equipment published by the Brennan center. “A lot of election officials have been unhappy with the choices that the major vendors are providing.”

[…]

STAR Vote runs automatic audits, comparing a statistical sample of the paper ballots with the digital records to verify results.

“The savings are just enormous over doing a recount,” Stark said.

While other systems allow for comparison of precinct-level data, STAR Vote can compare paper ballots with individual voters’ digital ballots, which are encrypted and posted online.

Officials could take a small sample of printed ballots and compare them with digital results to conclude with high confidence that election results were correct.

The system itself is also inexpensive, built with off-the-shelf tablet computers and printers, which Wallach said will cut the price down to half of the current norm. Advanced software makes up for the cheap hardware, designers said, and they plan to make the software open-source, meaning it is free to use and, unlike current systems, can be serviced by any provider without exclusive long-term contracts.

I’ve written about this before, and while I love the design of the STAR machine, I don’t have much hope of getting to vote on one any time soon. The political climate just doesn’t seem conducive to any effort to improve the voting experience, and the lip service we got from Greg Abbott back during the peak Trump-whining-about-rigged-elections period has surely gone down the memory hole. The one possible way in that I can see for these devices is their lower cost. At some point, enough of the current voting machines will become sufficiently inoperable that replacement will be needed, and a cheaper device ought to have an advantage. Let’s hope the process of getting a manufacturer in place goes smoothly.

(NB: “Wallach” is Rice professor Dan Wallach, who as I have noted before is a friend of mine.)

As long as we’re talking about improving our voting machines

Then this is what we should be talking about.

Dana DeBeauvoir

[Travis] County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir called Rice University computer science professor Dan Wallach, who has been poking holes in voting-machine security for years. He’s testified before Congress on the subject.

Now DeBeauvoir wanted him to design a new one.

“Wow,” he says. “That doesn’t happen very often.”

The last time voting technology went through a major design change was after the disastrous Florida recount in the 2000 presidential election. Confusion over badly designed and incompletely punched paper ballots threw the results into chaos.

In 2002, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, committing $4 billion to help localities buy new electronic voting machines.

“All of these machines, we understand now, are wildly insecure,” Wallach says. “Even though the vendors made claims that they were great, those claims have turned out to be false. And we’re now dealing with that problem.”

But replacing them costs money that many localities don’t have, and it’s not clear that Congress will pony up again.

So Wallach’s new system would have to be cheaper than what’s on the market now.

[…]

The system that the team of cybersecurity and usability experts came up with is called STAR-Vote, for secure, transparent, auditable and reliable.

It has two parts: A kiosk containing an off-the-shelf tablet computer and a standard inkjet printer, plus a metal ballot box with a built-in scanner.

Off-the-shelf parts keep the cost down and can be easily sourced and replaced. Wallach says the metal box costs more than all the electronic components inside it. The whole system should cost half or less what current machines do, which cost about $3,000 each.

Voters make their selections on the touchscreen tablet, which is kept off the internet and stripped of all software (and potential vulnerabilities) except the voting application.

State-of-the-art cryptography protects the integrity of the vote. But it’s not the only safeguard. Hard copy remains one of the most secure ways to cast a ballot.

“The crypto can do some really great tricks,” Wallach says. “But if you don’t trust the cryptography, that’s OK. Because we also have printed paper ballots that go into a box.”

Voters can see who the computer says they chose. The vote is only cast when the voter puts it in the ballot box.

And if there is any question about the electronic votes, the paper ballots are the backup.

This is nothing new – I wrote about it in July of 2014, and Wallach’s team made a presentation about STAR-Vote in August of 2013. The point is that this system, which is both more secure than what we have now while also being less expensive, could be in place for the 2018 election if we really wanted it to be. Given the lip service some Republicans like Greg Abbott are giving to election integrity, this is totally doable. You will know by what happens in the 2017 legislative session whether Abbott et al meant any of it or not.

(Disclaimer: As noted before, Dan Wallach is a friend of mine.)

Wait, who supports paper ballots now?

I have three things to say about this.

Following repeated allegations by Republican Donald Trump that the election may be rigged to ensure a win for Democrat Hillary Clinton, Texas lawmakers are actively considering ways to boost confidence in the state’s elections during next year’s legislative session.

Among the ideas drawing interest: adding paper trail backups to thousands of electronic voting machines.

The idea was brought up in a tweet Saturday by Gov. Greg Abbott.

“That’s a great idea & we are considering it as an election reform measure. Election integrity is essential,” Abbott tweeted in response to a voter who tweeted that he wanted printed proof of how he cast his ballot.

Over the last decade, several Texas lawmakers have filed bills to require paper trails on electronic voting machine. The proposals often include adding a printer in a sealed case to the state’s electronic voting machines so voters could check their votes against the receipt. The paper trail could be consulted in the event of a recount.

During the 2007 legislative session, interest in the idea stalled following estimates that adding the printers to all of the state’s voting machines could cost $40 to 50 million, according to a Fort Worth Star-Telegram article from the time.

One of the 2007 bills was authored by then-state Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham. Now a state senator, she said she may re-introduce her previous legislation.

“I agree with Governor Abbott’s call for election reform,” Kolkhorst said Tuesday in an emailed statement. “I have personally spoken with his office about re-introducing my legislation from 2007 to strengthen ballot integrity by requiring a paper record be printed of a person’s vote on an electronic voting machine. Texans have the right to inspect and verify that their vote was accurately recorded.”

[…]

The move toward election reform comes amid an election season in which Texans have expressed concerns about election rigging and voter fraud. Last week, Trump highlighted reports of voting machines in Texas changing votes for president from voters casting straight-ticket ballots. Those reports, however, have been largely debunked by election officials, who have stated that alleged instances of “vote flipping” were the result of user error.

1. I’m old enough to remember when suspicion of electronic voting machines and faith that only paper ballots could ensure the integrity of our electoral system was a shibboleth on the left, largely having to do with dire conspiracy theories about the Diebold corporation and vote counting in Ohio in 2004. Here’s a little blast from the past for those of you who have blocked this out or weren’t there for it the first time. Who knew that a sociopathic sore-losing narcissist could spark such an interest in voting machine integrity among Republicans? For that matter, who knew that so many Republican voters could be that suspicious of the electoral process in a state whose elections they have been dominating for over 20 years? Clearly, all these Republican County Clerks and Republican-appointed elections administrators can’t be trusted.

2. Travis County has already done a lot of the heavy lifting on building a better mousetrap. Maybe we should just emulate their work and save us all a bunch of time and effort.

3. Putting aside the question of paper ballots for a moment, perhaps we should take a moment and contemplate the fact that the electronic voting machines we use now are all a decade or more old, and are generally past their recommended lifespan. If we do nothing else, spending a few bucks to upgrade and replace our current hardware would be an excellent investment.

Supreme Court dismisses effort to dissolve state’s first same-sex marriage

I could be wrong, but I believe this closes the books on all the same-sex marriage litigation from last year.

RedEquality

The Texas Supreme Court on Friday tossed out Attorney General Ken Paxton’s effort to undo the union of the first gay couple to legally wed in Texas. The court-ordered same-sex marriage of two Austin women had occurred months before such unions were legalized by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark June ruling that same-sex marriage is protected by the U.S. Constitution, the state’s highest civil court dismissed Paxton’s request as moot.

The case dates back to February 2015 when Austin residents Sarah Goodfriend and Suzanne Bryant were legally wed after obtaining a marriage license from the Travis County clerk under direction from state District Judge David Wahlberg.

At the time, Texas’ constitutional ban on marriage was still in effect. But Wahlberg ordered Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir to issue the license under special circumstances because Goodfriend was diagnosed with ovarian cancer a year earlier. Wahlberg ordered the county to “cease and desist relying on the unconstitutional Texas prohibitions against same-sex marriage.”

Although Wahlberg’s court order was specific to the Austin couple, Paxton challenged the marriage before the Texas Supreme Court, which later blocked Wahlberg’s ruling to prevent other same sex couples from obtaining marriage licenses. A day after the couple wed, Paxton asked the court to overturn the order and void the marriage license to “avoid the legal chaos” that could arise.

See here and here for the background. Paxton had dropped his appeal of a similar case in July, after the Obergfell ruling; I had thought at the time that he’s also drop this one, but clearly he did not. Three of the Supreme Court justices were critical of the judge who granted the license and of the attorney who represented the plaintiffs, and I can see where they’re coming from on that, but in the end that didn’t matter. The marriage is valid, as it should be and should have been, and this is now a settled question. There are still plenty of battles to wage, but we can cross this one off the list.

Dan Wallach: The case for not letting everybody vote by mail

You know who Dan Wallach is by now. Voting systems and security are in his wheelhouse, and when he sent this to me in response to this, I was happy to queue it up.

vote-button

Vote by mail (VBM) is cheaper! It’s more enfranchising! Take your time and do it right! Yes, indeed, and why not even do it over the Internet! Sigh. But what proponents of VBM seem to miss in these arguments in that voting is not the same as doing your taxes. It’s not the same as buying stuff from Amazon. Why? Because voting fraud happens. Voting fraud has a long history. You name the voting technology, and there are people who try to use it to influence the outcome of elections.

Let’s take a trip in the Wayback Machine to the time before the modern “Australian” secret ballot. Voters would get colorfully printed “party slates”, often from their partisan newspapers, and would take them to the polls to deposit in the ballot box. (Check out the pretty pictures!) Why did we switch to having the state doing the printing and having voters fill those ballots out in a private booth? To eliminate bribery and coercion! This transition was even connected with the women’s suffrage movement, since the women at the time were apparently less interested than the manly men in putting up with a partisan gauntlet between the street and the ballot box. (See this NPR interview with Jill Lepore for lots of fun details.)

Okay, so secret ballots are a good thing, but they only work when the voter cannot prove how they voted, even if they want to. That’s why you’re not supposed to have your smartphone out when you’re voting, because you can make a video of your whole interaction with the machine. That’s why you vote alone, without assistance, because your “assistant” could then monitor your every move. Yes, “assisting” voters is a prominent mode of voter fraud, especially for the elderly. (See this article about the history of voter fraud in Chicago for some details.) That articled also gets into my problem with absentee / VBM balloting:

Joe Novak, a longtime Chicago political operative who knew the intimate details of the election system, explained in 2002 that election fraud still worked the way it had for years. “Precinct captains still like to control the vote by pushing absentees.” The captain goes to a retirement center or other places where the elderly gather and gets a signed statement from a voter that they can’t make it to the polls on Election Day. The captain can tell the voter how to vote. The idea is “Captains like to be ranked No. 1” in their ward organization. Alderman Joseph Moore from the Forty-Ninth Ward added, “The captain will offer to take (a completed absentee ballot) downtown for you.”  “Until they tightened the rules a few years ago,” Moore said, “it was common to see captains bringing in buckets full of ballots.”

A similar instructive example is the election of “Landslide” Lyndon B Johnson for the U.S. Senate in 1948 (background article, academic discussion). Texas, at the time, was largely controlled by the Democratic Party, so the Democratic Primary election was to be decisive for who would win the Senate seat, much like the Republican Primary is today. The 1948 primary went to a runoff between Johnson and former Texas Governor Coke Stevenson, Johnson defeated Stevenson by an “87-vote landslide.” Much attention has focused on ballot stuffing in Jim Wells County’s infamous “Box 13,” but ballot box stuffing, among other fraudulent behavior, was apparently the norm across the state. Counties were allowed to report “revisions” to their tallies in the week following the election, allowing local party bosses to continuously adjust their vote totals to assist their preferred candidate.

Let’s get back to VBM. Yes, it’s absolutely easier to defraud an election where voters are using VBM. In Texas today, if you want to vote absentee, you must either be over 65, or have one of a small set of valid reasons. If we expanded this to the general population, would we have more voter fraud? Without a doubt. Sure, VBM proponents like to talk about the extent to which they verify signatures on envelopes, but they cannot possibly hope to combat elderly vote fraud, never mind undo family influence. VBM fundamentally enables fraud.

Okay, but what about those electronic voting machines? They certainly have their own serious problems. Here’s a 93 page report I co-authored as part of California’s 2007 “Top to Bottom Report” on the Hart InterCivic eSlate. Our conclusion then was that there were unacceptable security flaws in the design of the eSlate and every other voting system we analyzed. So far as I can tell, Hart InterCivic hasn’t meaningfully changed anything since then. We’re still voting on the same poorly engineered machines here in Harris County today. But are these weaknesses being actively exploited? I don’t know, and neither does anybody else.

What would I recommend to replace our aging and breaking voting systems? I was invited by Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir and her team to help design something new, from scratch, that might better meet the needs of Travis County and others. Our design, called STAR-Vote (secure, transparent, auditable, reliable), uses state of the art cryptographic and statistical auditing techniques that can help voters prove their votes were counted correctly or prove they were defrauded (yet not be able to prove to a third party how they voted). STAR has printed paper ballots, so tampered software can’t mess with the final tallies without detection. And STAR is designed to use off-the-shelf commodity computer hardware rather than the overpriced proprietary devices being sold by the voting systems industry. Where does STAR stand today? We’ve got a great design. We have prototype implementations here at Rice, today, where we’re running usability tests. Ultimately, we need to get the funding together to professionally build and maintain the software, and that’s as much a political challenge as anything technical. Once the software’s done, the incremental cost of rolling out new hardware would be something like a third of the cost of what the voting machine industry wants to charge, and we haven’t even begun to talk about the ongoing service contract savings. (The exact business model for STAR is very much dependent on its funding situation. Legally, any company could take our design, implement it, and sell it, yet none have; sadly, some voting system vendors have inappropriately adopted similar technical lingo while shipping products without any of the desirable security properties.)

Yeah, but what about voter turnout? If your goal is to increase voter turnout, then there are plenty of ways to make that happen. 22 countries make voting mandatory. If you want something a little less draconian, might I suggest an “open primary” as California has done? That would better enfranchise “independent” voters who don’t want to be forced to vote in one party or the other’s primary. Or how about compact districts, so we can have more competitive races? Want something less disruptive? Okay, how about Election Day vote centers? In Travis County today, you can go to any polling place in the county, on Election Day, and you get to vote on your particular ballot. Want to vote near your work? No problem. Travis County adopted this to work around a nightmarish redistricting that would have otherwise resulted in large numbers of voters going to the wrong polling places, but you can see how it could add convenience for everybody.

My colleague, Bob Stein, likes to quip that all voters have one thing in common: they know who they want to vote for. If you want to increase turnout, I’m all for it, but if that’s truly the goal, then let’s not weaken our protections against voting fraud.

Getting ready for the SCOTUS same sex marriage ruling

Travis County is prepped and raring to go.

RedEquality

If the U.S. Supreme Court rules that same-sex couples have the right to marry, Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir plans to be ready.

The clerk’s office, which issues and records marriage licenses from its location at 5501 Airport Blvd., plans to offer extended evening and weekend hours to accommodate the pent-up demand from gay and lesbian couples who have been unable to marry under state law.

“We’re hoping for crowds,” said DeBeauvoir, a strong supporter of same-sex marriage.

When the Supreme Court issues its ruling — expected by the end of June, when the court typically finishes its term — a team of lawyers from the county attorney’s office will scour the decision to determine its implications for Travis County.

If the ruling allows, the goal is to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples as quickly as possible.

Plans include setting up special areas in the clerk’s office dedicated to marriage licenses and offering extended office hours dedicated to serving those seeking a marriage license. The hours and availability of marriage licenses will be updated on the clerk’s website.

County officials also expect couples to drive to Austin from all over the state, particularly those living in counties that haven’t prepared for the court ruling.

That’s a smart plan, because a lot of other counties are being more cautious about it right now.

Representatives from the Bexar and Travis county clerks’ offices say they’re prepared to physically modify marriage license application forms, which are generated by the state Vital Statistics Unit and currently say “male” and “female.” However, clerks in Dallas and El Paso counties—both Democrats—said they’d be reluctant to do so. Clerks in Harris and Tarrant counties, both Republicans, didn’t return calls seeking comment.

El Paso County Clerk Delia Briones said she reached out to the Vital Statistics Unit about the forms in February, but was told to wait until after the court rules.

“What am I going to do, ask the person who’s the man and who’s the woman? I can’t do that,” Briones said. “You want to be proactive and be prepared, but they’re stalling it at the state level, so my hands are tied.”

Chris Van Deusen, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of State Health Services, which includes the Vital Statistics Unit, said that after the Supreme Court rules, officials will consult with the attorney general’s office to determine what changes are needed.

“Until the court rules, [we] won’t be able to know the impact on current operations or forms,” Van Deusen said.

Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton, a staunch opponent of same-sex marriage, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Dallas County Clerk John Warren suggested his office won’t issue licenses to same-sex couples until the forms are modified by the Vital Statistics Unit.

“I don’t think Travis and Bexar may have thought it through completely because the marriage license application is a state form that is provided to the county clerks as the ‘local registrar,’” Warren said. “I can assume those two counties will manually strike through the language on the application. … The problem I have with this is that it makes the action of the clerk deliberate with the strike-out. That shows a direct intent to ignore the law.”

[…]

Ken Upton Jr., Dallas-based senior counsel for the LGBT civil rights group Lambda Legal, said if the Supreme Court rules in favor of same-sex marriage, gay couples could sue the Vital Statistics Unit and quickly get a federal judge to order officials to immediately change the application forms.

“I think there will be some places where this is a problem, but it isn’t going to be a problem for very long,” Upton said. “I think a clerk that hides behind Vital Statistics, when the law clearly states you have to let them get married, risks personal liability.”

Upton said it would also be illegal for clerks to stop issuing licenses to all couples, because they’d be interfering with the fundamental right to marry under the U.S. Constitution. If clerks or state officials refused to comply with a federal judge’s order, they could face punitive damages into the millions of dollars, he said.

“If the Supreme Court rules in our favor, I think there will be relatively little resistance in most places,” Upton said. “Where there are people resisting and throwing up obstacles, I think it will be a fireworks show worth watching, because the truth is they are going to get their heads handed to them.”

I think there will be some chaos for a couple of days, and for sure some number of county clerks will need to be whacked upside the head with a clue stick, but it will get sorted out fairly quickly. The only thing left is rear-guard action.

With legislation to block county clerks from issuing same-sex marriage licenses dying in the Legislature, it is not surprising that social conservatives are asking Governor Greg Abbott to call a special session on the issue.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected later this month to rule on whether state bans on same-sex marriage are constitutional, and the conventional wisdom is the court is going to say the bans are unconstitutional. Social conservatives had hoped to block implementation in Texas by passing a law that banned the issuance of same-sex marriage licenses, giving the state a means for continued litigation. The conservatives hope to use Harris v. McRae, 448 U.S. 297 (1980) to argue that the federal government cannot force states to spend local money to enforce a federal policy; i.e., issuing licenses for same-sex marriage.

After a legislative session where Abbott can claim a level of success, I find it difficult to believe he would call a special session on such a divisive issue, especially while he is still signing and vetoing bills. But on a single-issue special session, the only thing to stop a bill such as this from passing quickly would be a quorum break by Democrats.

The only prediction I will make is that some currently obscure government functionary is going to make himself or herself a hero/martyr figure among this crowd for a bold act of stupid intransigence that will get stomped on in with all due haste. Those of you that track current events and local stories for “year in review” stories, you will have much to keep track of.

Complaint filed against judge who allowed same sex marriage

Whatever.

RedEquality

The judge that allowed Texas’ first gay marriage to go forward is the target of a judicial conduct complaint, the latest volley in the state’s attempts to call the historic union into question.

“This judge deliberately violated statutory law and this is unacceptable,” Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arglington, said after confirming he had filed a complaint against state District Judge David Wahlberg with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.

“This complaint and any action, which the legislature decides to take, is about ensuring that our judicial system respects the laws of our state and respects the separation of powers. Judge Wahlberg allowed his personal views to dictate his action and ignored state law to accomplish his desired outcome.”

[…]

Immediately after Judge Wahlberg issued the order, Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir signed the couple’s marriage license and they were wed outside of the clerk’s offices by their rabbi. The next day, Attorney General Ken Paxton asked the state Supreme Court to declare the license null and void.

Reached for comment Wednesday, DeBeauvoir stood by the license’s legality and was not surprised by the complaint.

“I do believe the judge acted in good faith and in a fully legal way, and I believe the court order that I followed was a legal court order,” said DeBeauvoir.

Tinderholt’s complaint was filed Feb. 19. In it, he cites a Texas law that requires the attorney general to be notified when anyone “files a petition, motion, or other pleading challenging the constitutionality of a statute of this state.”

See here for the background. Tinderholt, who has his own issues, wasted no time filing that complaint, as Judge Wahlberg issued his ruling on the 19th. Seems like a stretch to me, but as always I Am Not A Lawyer. What do the real lawyers think about this?

First same-sex marriage in Texas happens

It may be the only one for awhile, but it will definitely not be the only one.

Despite Texas’ longstanding ban on same-sex marriages, two Austin women made history on Thursday when they became the first gay couple to legally wed in the state.

A judge directed the Travis County clerk to issue a marriage license to Sarah Goodfriend and Suzanne Bryant. The order does not clear the way for other same-sex couples in the county to be married.

The order by state District Judge David Wahlberg of Travis County directed Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir to “cease and desist relying on the unconstitutional Texas prohibitions against same-sex marriage” and issue the couple a marriage license.

The license was issued under special circumstances because one of the women has “severe and immediate health concerns,” a county spokeswoman said in a statement.

BOR was the first to break the news. The Statesman fills in some details.

In their petition to Wahlberg, the couple said the inability to obtain a marriage license was causing them irreparable harm, particularly because Goodfriend has been diagnosed and treated for ovarian cancer.

Saying they had no adequate legal remedy to enforce their right to marry, the couple asked Wahlberg to issue a restraining order directing DeBeauvoir to issue a marriage license and waive the 72-hour waiting period.

At 9:25 a.m., Wahlberg’s order arrived at the county clerk’s office. Bryant and Goodfriend immediately filled out the paperwork and quickly walked to the site of their vows, fearing the state would attempt to step in and enforce the law and constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

“Given the urgency and other circumstances in this case,” Wahlberg’s order said, “and the ongoing violation of plaintiffs’ rights, the court has concluded that good cause exists” to move forward with the marriage.

To get the license, the couple sued DeBeauvoir, and the county clerk emphasized that she is not issuing additional marriage licenses to same-sex couples but was complying with the court order.

You can see Judge Wahlberg’s order here. Not too surprisingly, AG Ken Paxton took action as well:

After the couple obtained the marriage license, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton called Wahlberg’s order “erroneous” and asked the Texas Supreme Court to block his ruling. Paxton is seeking to void the marriage license and has also filed suit to keep the Travis County Clerk’s office from issuing marriage licenses to other same-sex couples.

“The law of Texas has not changed, and will not change due to the whims of any individual judge or county clerk operating on their own capacity anywhere in Texas,” Paxton said in a statement. “Activist judges don’t change Texas law and we will continue to aggressively defend the laws of our state and will ensure that any licenses issued contrary to law are invalid.”

Wahlberg’s order came on the heels of Tuesday’s ruling by Travis County Probate Judge Guy Herman that said banning gay marriage is illegal. After Herman’s ruling prompted uncertainty among officials who were unsure what effect it has on gay marriage in the county, Paxton asked the Texas Supreme Court to intervene in the case and block Herman’s ruling.

The Texas Supreme Court granted Paxton’s requests Thursday afternoon, temporarily blocking both rulings.

Background on the probate case is here. You can see Paxton’s request for a stay here, and a copy of the Supreme Court’s orders here. According to the couple’s attorney, this does not void the marriage itself – the AG would have to sue them to try to nullify the license. (Longer version of the Chron story is here.)

At this point, I have no idea what will happen next. Until then, congratulations and mazel tov to Goodfriend and Bryant and their family. Hair Balls, Newsdesk, Equality Texas, Freedom to Marry, ThinkProgress, Unfair Park, the Observer, RG Ratcliffe, and Texas Leftist have more.

Another judge finds Texas’ ban on same sex marriage to be unconstitutional

This ruling is a bit more narrow, however.

RedEquality

A Travis County judge ruled Tuesday that the Texas ban on gay marriage is unconstitutional, but there was no rush to the altar after county officials — scrambling to assess the impact of the judge’s 3 p.m. order — declined to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, at least for now.

Probate Judge Guy Herman’s ruling, which affects only Travis County, came as part of an estate fight in which Austin resident Sonemaly Phrasavath sought to have her eight-year relationship with another woman, Stella Powell, declared a common-law marriage. Powell died last summer of colon cancer.

After an hourlong hearing in the downtown Austin courthouse, Herman found that the state ban on gay marriage violated the U.S. Constitution’s promise of equal protection and fair treatment under the law.

Whether the women’s relationship was a common-law marriage — which would entitle Phrasavath to a share of Powell’s estate — will be decided at a future date.

“It was never about property rights or about property,” Phrasavath said after the hearing. “At least for me, it was about standing up for my relationship and my marriage. If I didn’t do that, I would absolutely have no voice.”

[…]

Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir, who praised Herman for his ruling, reluctantly declined to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples “at the present time,” but said county lawyers are examining the decision to determine her options.

“Right now, I think it’s no, but we are checking,” DeBeauvoir said.

Michael Knisely, the attorney for Powell’s siblings who opposed Phrasavath’s claim on her estate, said no decision had been made on whether to appeal.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton last month declined to intervene in the case and thus isn’t in a position to ask the 3rd Court of Appeals to review Herman’s ruling. “Our office is reviewing today’s ruling from Travis County,” Paxton spokeswoman Cynthia Meyer said.

See here for the background. This ruling only affects Travis County, as Herman is a county judge. Obviously, there are the SCOTUS and Fifth Circuit appeals for the federal lawsuit, as well as the request to the Fifth Circuit to lift the stay on the original ruling. In the meantime, despite his initial lack of reaction, Ken Paxton isn’t sitting still.

Attorney General Ken Paxton on Wednesday asked the Texas Supreme Court to issue an emergency order blocking a local probate judge’s ruling that the state’s same-sex marriage ban is unconstitutional.

[…]

Paxton is petitioning the state’s highest court to immediately halt the ruling’s effect because it is “unnecessary and overly broad” and could give rise to “legal chaos” if county clerks interpret it to mean they can begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, according to the attorney general’s petition.

“The probate judge’s misguided ruling does not change Texas law or allow the issuance of a marriage license to anyone other than one man and one woman,” Paxton said in a statement.

And neither is Equality Texas:

Earlier today, Equality Texas called upon Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir to follow the law in Travis County and immediately begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in Travis County.

On Tuesday, Travis County Judge Guy Herman issued a ruling finding that the restrictions on marriage in the Texas Family Code and in the Texas Constitution that restrict marriage to the union of a man and a woman and prohibit marriage for same-sex couples are unconstitutional because the restrictions violate the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Contrary to the county clerk’s position previously stated in the media, this ruling in fact allows her to immediately issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in Travis County.

“Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir previously stated she would be happy to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples once the law allows for it. The law in Travis County now allows for the freedom to marry. Equality Texas calls upon the county clerk to stand with us–on the right side of history,” Equality Texas Executive Director Chuck Smith said.

Just as the Supreme Court may issue a marriage ruling this summer that applies to all 50 states, and just as the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals may issue a marriage ruling any day now that applies to the 5th Circuit, Judge Herman has issued a ruling that has the effect of law in Travis County.

So things are happening, and they may change quickly. Stay tuned.

UPDATE: According to BOR, Travis County Clerk Dana deBeauvoir did issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple this morning. Wow.

What will the clerks do?

Some of Texas’ county clerks are making plans to accommodate same-sex marriage license applicants in the event that federal judge Orlando Garcia lifts the stay on his ruling that tossed out the state’s ban on same-sex nuptials. Some other clerks are planning to be jerks about it.

RedEquality

Jeff Nicholson, chief deputy for Tarrant County Clerk Mary Louise Garcia, a Republican, said Tuesday he consulted with the DA’s office about the issue after receiving an inquiry from a citizen.

“They advised us very explicitly that the lifting of the stay by Garcia in San Antonio, which is a different district than the one we’re in, doesn’t have any effect on us,” Nicholson told the Observer. “I think the DA’s position is here, until this is very clearly decided, that Texas law is Texas law, and we’re going to sit tight.”

Ken Upton, Dallas-based senior counsel at the LGBT civil rights group Lambda Legal, said clerks in other states, including Kansas and Missouri, have taken similar positions.

“I don’t think there is anything keeping them from issuing the licenses once the stay is lifted, but an argument could be made that they aren’t required to do so until it [the outcome of the case] becomes final,” Upton said.

Ken Upton is nicer about this than I would be. I think that’s a chickenshit move, and I’d be happy to see any clerk that refused to follow the law get slapped with a contempt of court charge. Judge Garcia’s ruling invalidated a provision of the state constitution, which last I checked applied to all of the state. And why are they consulting with the DA’s office? Are there no qualified civil attorneys available to advise the Tarrant County Clerk? Sheesh.

Fortunately, same-sex couples from Fort Worth will be able to obtain licenses in Dallas, where Democratic clerk John Warren said he’s prepared to issue them.

“You take an oath to uphold the law, and if the law changes, you’ve got to do it,” Warren said. “If the law says I can’t, then I won’t. If the law says I can, then I will.”

Republican Bexar County Clerk Gerhard C. “Gerry” Rickhoff said in addition to keeping his office open ’round-the-clock, he’s considering setting up tables in Main Plaza to accommodate same-sex couples. Rickhoff said he’s also lined up district judges to waive a 72-hour waiting period before ceremonies can occur, as well as officiants to conduct them.

“There’s a pent-up demand to stop these civil rights violations that are pretty evident,” Rickhoff said. “I would imagine they’ll be driving into San Antonio in droves, and that’s what we’re prepared for. Nobody will be turned away. We’ll work until there’s nobody left.”

Democratic Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir said her office will also be ready to extend its hours if Garcia lifts the stay.

DeBeauvoir said she’s also prepared to “flip the switch” on changes to a database that would replace “bride” and “groom” with “Person 1” and “Person 2.”

Now that’s the way you do it. Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart says he’ll ask the AG’s office for advice and will do what they tell him, which is slightly less weaselly than Tarrant County Clerk Garcia. I don’t know what Judge Garcia will say or when he might say it, but this is coming whether some squeamish bureaucrats are ready for it or not. Those that aren’t need to grow up and get with the program or get out of office.

Paper ballots make a comeback

From the Everything Old Is New Again department:

States have abandoned electronic voting machines in droves, ensuring that most voters will be casting their ballots by hand on Election Day.

With many electronic voting machines more than a decade old, and states lacking the funding to repair or replace them, officials have opted to return to the pencil-and-paper voting that the new technology was supposed to replace.

Nearly 70 percent of voters will be casting ballots by hand on Tuesday, according to Pamela Smith, president of election watchdog Verified Voting.
“Paper, even though it sounds kind of old school, it actually has properties that serve the elections really well,” Smith said.

It’s an outcome few would have predicted after the 2000 election, when the battle over “hanging chads” in the Florida recount spurred a massive, $3 billion federal investment in electronic voting machines.

States at the time ditched punch cards and levers in favor of touch screens and ballot-scanners, with the perennial battleground state of Ohio spending $115 million alone on upgrades.

Smith said the mid-2000s might go down as the “heyday” of electronic voting.

Since then, states have failed to maintain the machines, partly due to budget shortfalls.

“There is simply no money to replace them,” said Michael Shamos, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University who has examined computerized voting systems in six states.

The lack of spending on the machines is a major problem because the electronic equipment wears out quickly. Smith recalled sitting in a meeting with Missouri election officials in 2012, where they complained 25 percent of their equipment had malfunctioned in preelection testing.

“You’re dealing with voting machines that are more than a decade old,” Smith said.

Roughly half of the states that significantly adopted electronic voting following the cash influx have started to move toward paper.

[…]

Shamos said he expects the move back to paper ballots to continue, unless there’s a high-profile crisis similar to the 2000 election.

Still, he predicted the drumbeat for Internet and mobile voting will grow.

“Eventually [a generation is] going to have the thought that it’s idiotic for me not to be able to vote using my cell phone,” Shamos said.

Then all bets are off.

No doubt. I can think of plenty of reasons for this, beyond the lack of money for new machines. There are the well-known security issues and accompanying mistrust of electronic voting machines, mostly coming from my side of the aisle. Some local officials are working on that, but the money issue is likely to be a formidable hurdle. Beyond that, there is the success that some states have had with voting by mail, plus the success we saw here in Texas in pushing absentee ballots. They’re convenient, they allow one to take one’s time, and they don’t require a photo ID. I have to wonder what the politics of expanding access to mail ballots would look like in the Lege this year, especially if a Democrat filed a bill to enable it. Might be worth watching.

Mail ballots aren’t perfect – people who move frequently or who aren’t particularly fastidious about keeping track of their incoming mail may find them inconvenient – and it’s hard to see this as a step forward, even if it might help boost turnout. I think Professor Shamos is exactly right about how future generations will view a return to paper ballots. But until the killer voting app gets developed, this may be our best bet. Link via Ed Kilgore.

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?