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eSlate

Trautman talks new voting machines

As is usually the case, finding the funding will be the key.

Diane Trautman

The newly elected Harris County clerk plans to phase out the county’s eSlate voting machines, which have occasionally caused problems for voters.

Diane Trautman, who beat the incumbent in the countywide sweep of Democrats, also wants to improve the county’s elections technology so voters can cast ballots in any precinct on Election Day. Currently, residents are allowed to vote at any polling place during early voting, but must use a designated location on Election Day.

“We must replace the current electronic machines with an electronic machine that produces a verifiable paper trail,” Trautman said. “The problem, of course, is the funding.”

[…]

Stanart said he also had planned to phase out the eSlate voting machines if re-elected.

On average, the devices are eight years old. Most were purchased after a 2010 fire destroyed the warehouse where Harris County stored its voting machines.

Stanart’s spokesman, Hector de Leon, said the clerk’s office estimates that replacing the county’s 8,189 eSlate machines would cost about $75 million. Trautman said she would explore whether the state or federal government could cover part of the cost.

[…]

Meanwhile, Commissioners Court would need to approve the purchase of new machines, and members are supportive of the idea. Incoming Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said improving the voting experience for residents must be a priority.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle urged Trautman to prepare a detailed proposal for replacing the eSlate machines and present it to the court. He said new machines must be a technological upgrade and have a long-term life span.

“Let’s not throw out good machines just to get fancy new ones,” Cagle said. “What we buy next, let’s make sure it lasts a while, as well.”

I’m glad to hear that there is support for moving forward on this. We should write up our standards, talk to Travis County about their systems, revisit that cost estimate, and begin meeting with legislators and members of Congress to see what funding they may be able to provide. It also looks like we can begin work on moving towards a vote center system for Election Day, which ought to help alleviate some of the problems we have seen when precinct voting locations have had technical problems. I can’t wait to see how this goes.

Our poor old voting machines

They really do need to be retired.

A national spotlight fell on Texas’ voting equipment last week after some voters complained that their votes on electronic voting machines had changed.

State election officials chalked it up to user error.

Critics alleged malfeasance or a software bug.

The Austin-based company behind the machines says an important piece of context is missing from this debate: these machines are 16 years old.

“It’s very much like someone calling Apple and asking for support on their iPhone 1,” said Steven Sockwell, vice president of marketing at Hart InterCivic.

Most Texas counties last upgraded their electronic voting machines well over a decade ago, tapping billions in funds Congress approved to upgrade voting equipment around the country following election irregularities during the 2000 presidential election. Dozens of Texas counties purchased Hart’s eSlate machines.

[…]

While Sockwell said that the eSlate machines “have not been performing any differently” than they have in previous elections, he said it is time for municipalities to upgrade to Hart’s newer voter system, which is called Verity. The eSlate machines generally have a lifespan of between 10 and 15 years, he said, though he added that they do not stop working after 15 years.

[Rice computer science professor Dan] Wallach said that he is surprised that Texas’ eSlate machines have lasted as long as they have.

“We’ve got eSlates that are over 10 years old and in some cases approaching 20 years,” Wallach said. “Normally, computers don’t last that long.”

See here for the background. For the record, the first iPhones came out in 2007, so these machines are mostly at least five years older than that. However you view their utility and security today, the day is coming – likely soon – when we will have no choice but to replace these machines. At some point, they’re just not going to work anymore.

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.

We really need to replace our crappy old voting machines

This is embarrassing.

Local election administrators in Texas are eager to replace voting machines purchased more than a decade ago in time for the 2020 presidential election. Increasingly susceptible to malfunctions, upkeep for the aging machines can exceed $300,000 annually in the biggest counties. Election experts have also raised security concerns about the paperless electronic devices used in most of the state.

The little help Congress has offered comes in the form of recent funding that will be used for cyber updates and training, not voting machines. And state leaders have shown no interest in chipping in, even as scrutiny over the security of the country’s election systems ratchets up in the face of Russian attacks.

In 2017, budget writers in the Texas Legislature seemed lukewarm to the idea of replacing aging equipment. Legislation that would have created a state fund for new voting equipment died without getting a committee vote in the House. The bill received a late-session hearing during which one lawmaker on the panel, Representative Pat Fallon, R-Frisco, asked county officials to shorten their testimony because a college basketball championship game had just tipped off.

“I hope we don’t have to wait until a crisis, but we are walking on thin ice when it comes to the integrity of our voting machines,” said state Representative Celia Israel, an Austin Democrat and the sponsor of the 2017 legislation.

More than 200 of Texas’ 254 counties still need to replace their voting machines and it appears unlikely that all will be able to do so in time for the next presidential election. The full price tag, according to election officials, is around $350 million — and local officials are having to find inventive ways to cover the costs. Travis County, for example, is expected to announce the winner of a new voting machine contract this week and plans to sell local bonds to come up with the anticipated $15 million.

The situation has grown dire. Some counties are using equipment that’s no longer manufactured. Machine failures are growing more common and it’s becoming harder to find replacement parts. County workers often have to scour eBay and Amazon to locate bygone tech relics such as as Zip disks and flash drives compatible with older machines.

Yeah, ZIP drives. Remember them, from the 90s? If you are relying on this kind of technology today, You Are Doing It Wrong. There’s no excuse for this – even if one thinks the counties should pay for the upgrades themselves, the cost cited in that penultimate paragraph is something like 0.3% of the state’s annual expenditures. It would be super easy to solve this if we gave a shit, but clearly our Republican leaders do not. But hey, I’m sure nothing bad will ever happen.

LWV to look at Harris County election security

I look forward to seeing their results.

The League of Women Voters of the Houston Area plans to study the cybersecurity of Harris County’s election system, but the non-partisan group may not be able to gather all the information it wants.

The League, working with the non-profit civic-tech activist group Sketch City, hopes to finish the study and release recommendations by May 2018.

During an organizational meeting [last] Tuesday night at the Leonel Castillo Community Center, Sketch City founder Jeff Reichman said the group had received early cooperation from both the Harris County Clerk’s office, which administers elections, and the Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector, which handles voter registration.

Reichman said the group wants to study all aspects of the election process, which uses Hart InterCivic eSlate voting machines that are about 15 years old. He said they want to look into the documented vulnerabilities of the machines; how easily computers involved in the election can be physically accessed both in storage and while in use in elections; and what the procurement process is for buying new machines.

“We want to look into the best practices that anyone with access to sensitive information should follow,” Reichman said during Tuesday’s meeting.

There’s been a lot of debate about the security of our election systems, locally and nationally. Less discussed is the fact that our voting system is just old, at least in technological terms. The eSlate made its debut in Texas in the 2000 election and has been in use in Harris County since 2002, which is five years before the debut of the iPhone. One would think there have been some advances in the engineering since then. As such, even without this particular elephant in the room, we have needed to be thinking about what comes next for some time. If this is even a small step in that direction, I’m glad to see it. I’m not sure what it would take otherwise.

Stan Stanart talks election security

I have a few thoughts as well.

vote-button

Over the course of the presidential race, concern has grown about digitally safeguarding election results.

New cyber security threats seem to emerge monthly. Republican Donald Trump has repeatedly contended the presidential election will be “rigged.” And suspected Russian hackers have broken into computer systems of the Democratic Party.

“With so much news out there, people are concerned,” acknowledged Harris County’s top election official, Stan Stanart, at a news conference Thursday.

However, Stanart sought to reassure the public that all necessary defenses are up and there is no way Harris County’s election will be hacked or rigged, because it is not connected to the internet.

[…]

“Our elections are too important to leave them open to attack,” said Dan Wallach, a Rice University computer science professor who testified in September to Congress on election cyber security. “We need to do better.”

The most attractive part of an election system for a malicious attack, he said,is the voter database – in Harris County, it’s a list of nearly 2.2 million registered voters. If hackers successfully deleted it, chaos would ensue.

But the county database is kept offline, invulnerable from the outside. Even so, Stanart, the county clerk, said his office, the county tax assessor’s office, and the Texas secretary of state save a backup copy every day.

“There are many eyes and there are many triggers in the whole system that would notify us, and we would observe if there were any issues with any registrations being changed,” Stanart said. “I assure you there’s no problem there.”

Wallach agreed that the daily database backups provided excellent protection.

The fact that the voting machines are not connected to the Internet is a good thing. Dan Wallach (who is a friend of mine) has some criticism of the “secure network” setup for transferring the voting data from the individual memory cards to the central network, but I agree with him that this is an unlikely target for attack. The main vulnerability here is what it has always been, with the cards themselves and their handling. If a card becomes corrupted or lost before its contents can be uploaded, there’s no backup. This is why people like Wallach have been calling for paper receipts to be included. That problem, and the accompanying risk, cannot be solved with the current voting machines. I don’t know how big that risk is – in over a decade of using the eSlate machines, we have not had this problem, but the downside if it happens even once is enormous, and these machines are at the end of their lifecycle with no obvious path forward. But hey, maybe we’ll make it through another election.

As for the voter registration data, it’s really a question of the county’s network security overall. There are a lot of pieces to this, so I’ll just focus on the question of monitoring. As long as they monitor all changes to the voter registration file – what, when, by whom – and they have someone keeping an eye on that, then they’re probably OK.

So I tend to agree that at the very least there’s nothing new or unusual to worry about this year, and I appreciate Stanart making the effort to address that. We should always be vigilant, but let’s not lose perspective, and let’s not worry about things that aren’t worth worrying about. If only Stanart took that same approach to the far smaller risk of in person vote fraud.

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.

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?

Diaz still leads after recount

No surprise.

Former Jacinto City Mayor Chris Diaz still appears to be the Democratic nominee for Harris County Precinct 2 constable following a Monday recount in his razor-thin runoff with Precinct 2 Sgt. Zerick Guinn.

Diaz’s 17-vote margin is unofficial, county Democratic Party Chairman Lane Lewis said, adding the party plans to finalize the results Saturday.

Diaz actually gained a vote after the recount. Unless Guinn wants to pursue this in the courts, the matter is basically settled. Stace has more.

That’s the basic news about this. Do you know how the county handles a recount like this? I had no idea, until Dan Wallach, who wrote that guest post on Tuesday, sent me the following eyewitness account:

Dan Wallach

I was invited by the Harris County Democratic Party to be an observer of the Guinn-Diaz recount, which ran all day on Monday. This race, in the Democratic primary election, was to select the Democratic candidate for Constable, Precinct 2. There were some procedural errors during the initial tally. At one point, the two candidates were separated by all of 3 votes out of just over 11 thousand cast. By the time they included the absentee ballots, roughly 28% of all the votes in the race, the margin of victory was 16 votes.

I showed up at the recount with my camera, hoping to take lots of great pictures. Several people promptly came running at me saying that it was illegal to take pictures during a recount. (Dear lawyers who are reading this: really?) Instead, I’ll just have to do my best to describe what I did and what I saw.

For starters, Harris County uses the Hart InterCivic eSlate, a paperless electronic voting system, which stands out from other DRE-type systems by having a local network in the polling place. For each group of eSlate terminals, there’s a single controller (a “Judge Booth Controller” or JBC) that connects to the eSlates. Three copies of each vote are recorded: one in the eSlate where it was cast, one in the JBC’s internal memory, and one on a PCMCIA flash card (a “mobile ballot box” or MBB) that’s removable from the JBC. If you want to learn a lot more about the eSlate architecture and its security vulnerabilities, you might enjoy the California “Top to Bottom” report, which I co-authored in 2007.

On election night, the process is that they remove the MBBs from the JBCs and use computers to read them and tabulate the data centrally. Part of this process is for the centrally-tabulated data to then be reported on the Election Day Results webpage, or in this case, misreported. It wasn’t the tabulated results that were wrong, just the reported results. That’s another story, although it would be nice to have a detailed explanation of what went wrong.

If the initial counts were done from the MBBs, how about the recount? For this, they used the JBCs: 115 of them were sequestered for the recount, each connected individually to a single computer that copied their contents. (This computer runs Windows 2000, the only “certified” configuration available; at least there was no network connection.) All of this occurred before the recount itself began. No party or candidate representatives witnessed this part of the process. Johnnie German, the county’s administrator of elections, told me that the process took five hours and needed to be done in advance so the recount could complete on time. More on this below.

The recount was an involved process. There were three and later four tables of counters. Each table had five people. Each table gets a stack of every paper ballot for a given precinct which they then tabulate. In the case of absentee ballots, these were original, hand-marked papers. In the case of eSlate-cast ballots, these were printed on site by a laser printer from the aforementioned computer that collected JBC data. The tabulation process has one person, in the center, who picks up a ballot from the stack and reads out who got the vote. On this person’s side are two people (representing the candidates) who double check this. Across the table are two separate people who keep count. With this many eyeballs on the task, the inevitable errors are caught. When a stack of ballots was completed, everybody at the table would agree on a summary sheet, they signed it, and it came over to where I was sitting.

Our table had four people: myself, the election administrator, and one observer for each candidate. I picked up each stack of ballots and called out the precinct number and totals. The election administrator typed those numbers into an Excel spreadsheet. The observers made sure we got the numbers right.

The results? Unsurprisingly, for all the eSlate-cast votes, the hand tabulation exactly equaled the original machine tabulation. For the absentee ballots, we had one precinct with single absentee ballot that somehow didn’t show up for the recount. The election administrator made a phone call to the downtown site, where absentee ballots are kept in a vault, and arranged for somebody to go dig out that ballot and bring it back to us. (That particular ballot was an undervote, so it didn’t impact the result.) We also discovered a precinct that had an extra absentee ballot that somehow wasn’t tabulated at all in the initial machine-scanned tally. Where did it come from? Why wasn’t it counted beforehand? We don’t know. (This ballot favored Diaz, increasing his lead from 16 to 17 votes.) Otherwise, there were no discrepancies or changes to the election outcome. The process started at 8am and ended at 4pm with a one-hour lunch break.

What’s interesting is what we didn’t do in the recount. There was no attempt to audit the original electronic systems, perhaps looking for unusual behavior in the original tallying systems’ logs, or perhaps comparing the in-person poll books or absentee envelopes against the number of cast votes. We didn’t have access to the scanned ballot images, so there was no opportunity to do any sort of risk limiting audit (comparing the scanned ballot images to the physical ones to make sure they’re the same). Also, the only way to get electronic data out of a Hart InterCivic tallying system is in PDF format (example results). There is no way to get all the raw data in a format that’s convenient to bring back into a computer for subsequent analysis.

As I mentioned above, the JBCs’ data was downloaded in advance, giving us no opportunity to observe this process. So far as I could tell, the boxes that hold the JBCs have no security seals, which could have at least provided some evidence of chain-of-custody maintenance. Absentee ballots, for contrast, are transported in plastic tubs with numbered plastic security seals, and there’s a process for documenting those numbers when the seals are broken. A corresponding process for JBCs would be a good idea to adopt.

I’m also a bit sad that we didn’t have a counting scale that we could use in the recount. In addition to enabling clever audits, we could have used them to simply double check the number of papers in each stack of ballots. Apparently the election warehouse does have one, but we weren’t allowed to use it, even to double check our manual tallies. (Dearest election lawyers: really?)

One lesson from this is that political candidates understand the concept of a recount, and there’s plenty of election code that talks about what a recount entails. What’s less clear is how well the election code can bend to support the idea of audits. Printing sheets of paper corresponding to electronically cast ballot records, then counting them by hand, is both wasteful of resources and unlikely to discover anything valuable. Instead, I’d like to see counties offer a menu of options (at different prices, of course) to the candidate requesting a recount. A candidate might then choose to pay for a full tally of absentee ballots and for various audits to reconcile the totals. If a candidate wanted to double-check a sample of the eSlates, to make sure they had the same votes as in the election night tallies, that should be easy and cheap to do.

Another important lesson is that future voting systems (electronic or otherwise) need to be explicitly engineered with recounts and other sorts of audits at the core of their functionality. Of course, we also want the sorts of voter verifiability security properties that DRE systems like the eSlate lack, but this experience made it clear to me that we have a lot of room to improve basic recounting and auditing procedures. At the end of the day, the goal is to convince the losing candidate that he or she genuinely lost. I don’t know whether this particular candidate was convinced.

So now we know, and I thank Dan for the detailed information. I like the suggestions about enabling audits and giving candidates different choices for how to conduct recounts. What do you think?

County buys more eSlates

Now that the election is over and all those borrowed voting machines need to be sent back to their owners, Harris County needs to buy replacements. Commissioners Court has approved an expenditure of $19 million to buy some 4600 eSlate machines to be ready for next year. What they got is the same thing we’ve been using all along.

The purchase also signals that the county will continue to use these machines with decade-old technology for some years to come.

“We’re going to need them until there’s a new iteration of machines,” County Clerk Beverly Kaufman said. She said, and a representative of eSlate vendor Hart Intercivic confirmed, that manufacturers will not introduce new machines until the Texas secretary of state and the federal Election Assistance Commission certifies the hardware and software for use in elections.

“Vendors are loath to develop something new because they don’t know what’s around the bend,” Kaufman said.

Well, I don’t know about the certifications issue, but there are two things I would like to see in the next generation of eSlates:

1. The ability to randomize ballot order, especially for non-partisan elections like primaries, special elections, and municipal elections. Your electoral outcome should not be affected in any way by the luck of a ballot order drawing.

2. Highlighting any races that are not included in a straight-party vote. In other words, if you cast a straight party vote on a ballot where there may also be a special election or a proposition, the eSlate should point that out to you before you hit the “cast vote” button.

I don’t know if this is a chicken and egg situation or not, and I don’t know if state law would need to be changed to allow these things, but I do know that I feel pretty strongly that they ought to be considered. I’m avoiding the question of adding a paper trail because that’s a political fight, and I see these things as merely technological; perhaps naively, I don’t think either of these suggestions should be controversial, and thus ought to be reasonably easy to build a consensus for them. Given that, is there anything you’d add to my wish list?

On straight ticket voting

After Democrats made big gains in 2008 in Harris County thanks in part to straight ticket voting, I defended the practice from the Republican concern trolls that came out to wring their hands about it now that they were no longer its primary beneficiary. I’m not going to change my mind after this election just because things went the other way. To my mind, there are far bigger issues that need to be dealt with first, in particular the legalization of unlimited anonymous corporate campaign money that the Supreme Court foisted on us this year. But at the end of the day, if people want to push one button and be done, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

Be that as it may, it’s time once again to deal with the usual tongue clucking that seems to follow every election these days. First, a different issue that got the concern trolls riled up two years ago, partisan judicial elections.

During our recent screening of Harris County judicial candidates, the one consistent message from both incumbents and challengers was their distaste at having to run for office with a party affiliation.

The current method of electing judges also forces candidates to raise money from lawyers who will practice in their courts, a system that at minimum creates the appearance of favoritism in court deliberations.

In the last two elections we’ve lost good GOP and Democratic judges because of the boom-and-bust partisan cycles. It’s time to revive discussion of a merit appointment system linked to a periodic retention election to give the electorate the opportunity to replace poorly performing jurists.

Here’s the reality.

Iowa’s rejection of three state supreme court justices who ruled in favor of same-sex marriage underscored the growing electoral vulnerability of state judges as more and more are targeted by special interest groups, legal scholars and jurists said Thursday.

“It just illustrated something that has been troubling many of us for many, many years,” California Chief Justice Ronald M. George said. “The election of judges is not necessarily the best way to select them.”

The three Iowa high court justices were ousted in the kind of retention election California uses for appeals court judges: They face no opposing candidates and list no party affiliation, and voters can select “yes” or “no.” Legal scholars have generally said that system is among the most effective ways of avoiding a politicized judiciary.

But a report by the Brennan Center for Justice this year found a “transformation” in state judicial elections during the last decade throughout the country. Big money and a campaign emphasis on how a judge votes on the bench has become “the new normal,” the report said.

“For more than a decade, partisans and special interests of all stripes have been growing more organized in their efforts to use elections to tilt the scales of justice their way,” said the report, which examined 10 years of judicial elections. “Many Americans have come to fear that justice is for sale.”

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: You cannot remove the politics from judicial selections, no matter how you do it. Merely removing the partisan labels from judicial candidates will not magically make partisan interest groups and their money disappear. If you want to blunt the influence of those outside groups, the best bet is to reform the way judicial campaigns are financed. In this post-Citizens United world, that will only get you so far, but it’s a start. If the problem is the money, then deal with the money. I do not understand why this concept is so hard to grasp.

The second electoral reform the Legislature should consider is changing the current formula that encourages straight-ticket voting. Nearly 67 percent of Harris County voters voted straight ticket in the recently concluded election. Texas is among only 16 states permitting straight-party voting, and five others abolished it during the last two decades.

Critics contend the system encourages partisanship at the expense of quality government service. It can also undercut nonpartisan races and propositions on the same ballot. In two highly publicized Houston propositions on the ballot last Tuesday, nearly 56,000 voters did not register a choice on the Proposition 1 drainage fee issue and nearly 46,000 bypassed Proposition 3 on red-light cameras. Prop 1 narrowly passed and Prop 3 narrowly lost. It’s likely most of those so-called under votes were straight-ticket voters who never ventured down the lengthy ballot.

As Chronicle Outlook contributor Bill King noted before the election, straight-party voting in Texas was created by Democrats and maintained by Republicans to protect the majority party. “It will go away when the party in power in Austin calculates it is to its political advantage to do so,” noted King. “That might just be the case in 2011.”

Bill, if you’re reading this, I’ll bet you $10 right now that doesn’t happen. Hell, I’ll be shocked if such a bill even makes it to a committee vote. If there was a time for this, it was in the 2009 session, when Republicans were in close control but had just suffered major losses in the big counties. With their overwhelming win last Tuesday and hugely inflated legislative margin – in fairness, King wrote the column cited before the election – they have no reason to think in these terms. Even if they did, the budget and redistricting and all of their wingnut wish list items will take precedence.

As far as the assertion regarding the city propositions is concerned, it seems to me that is something that ought to have an objective answer. Surely we should be able to tell from the returns how many people who voted a straight ticket did and did not also cast a ballot on the propositions. I’ve put in an email to the County Clerk to inquire about that and will report back when I get an answer. Regardless, it also seems to me that there’s no reason why an electronic voting system could not be programmed to accommodate this. If a straight-ticket vote is cast, the interface could then prompt the voter if it detects that there are elections on the ballot that aren’t covered by that vote – special elections, non-partisan races, ballot propositions, etc. Maybe the Chron could ask our new County Clerk to make this a requirement for the next generation of eSlate machines. The point is, there’s no reason why this needs to be an issue. We have the technology to not make it one.

Electronic voting will be the norm today

From the County Clerk’s office:

ELECTRONIC VOTING TO BE THE PRINCIPAL METHOD OF VOTING ON ELECTION DAY IN HARRIS COUNTY

Houston, TX– As usual, on General Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2010, the eSlate electronic voting system will be the principal method of voting in Harris County. According to the County Clerk’s office, the deployment of electronic voting equipment will be virtually the same for this election compared to the last gubernatorial election.

”There will be enough electronic voting equipment at the polls to handle the expected Election Day turnout”, said Beverly Kaufman, the chief election official of the county. “Paper ballots will be available at every poll. But I strongly urge voters to cast their ballots using the eSlate electronic voting machines as it is the system which is most familiar to them.” The eSlate has been in use in Harris County since 2002.

The Election Day infrastructure and procedures will also be the same as the previous similar election: There will be 736 polling locations, five more than four years ago; The polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.; And, a voter may bring someone of their choosing to the polling place to provide assistance, provided it is not their labor union representative, employer, an agent of their employer, or an officer or agent of a labor union to which the voter belongs. The person providing assistance must sign the Affidavit of Voter Assistance and print his/her name on the poll list, to attest to the fact that they will not unduly influence the voter.

However, voters and the media will notice slight differences on Tuesday: Aside from the voters and the election clerks, there may be state and federal inspectors and poll watchers at some polls. [A Poll Watchers is a person appointed to observe the conduct of an election on behalf of a candidate, a political party, or the proponents or opponents of a measure (specific-purpose political action committees). The role of a poll watcher is to ensure the conduct of fair and honest elections]; and, the election night Central Counting Station will be at Reliant Arena.

Aside from the federal, state and county races on the ballot, some voters may see other items at the end their ballot such as a proposition or non-partisan election. To vote, a person may present one of the following documents: a voter registration card, a driver’s license, a picture identification of any kind, a birth certificate, a U.S. Citizenship or Naturalization certificate, a U.S passport, a copy of a current utility bill, bank statement, government check, paycheck, or other government document that shows the name and address of the voter. Voters who registered by mail and did not provide their driver’s license number or identification number will also need to provide another form of identification other than the voter registration certificate.

On Election Day, Texas law requires voters to vote at the precinct where they are registered to vote. Voters may find their election day polling location by visiting www.harrisvotes.com or calling 713 755 6965.

They also inform us that the results we are all waiting for may be a bit slower than usual to arrive:

Harris County Election Night returns may be slower in coming this year due to extra administrative procedures presiding election judges have to perform related to the possible use of paper ballots and because there will be only one central drop off location.

“The pace of the election returns will be dictated by how fast election judges complete their paper work and close down their polling location, and the sites’ proximity to the central drop-off station”, said Harris County Clerk Beverly Kaufman, the chief elections officer of the county.

The County Clerk Office expects to release the initial election results report approximately at 7:00 p.m. on election night. The report will include the ballots cast during the early voting period and almost all mail ballots delivered to the County Clerk by the election night deadline.

As of the close of the early voting period, including absentee ballots, 444,648 persons had been processed to vote. It is estimated that almost 60 percent of all voters who will participate in this election may have voted before General Election Day.

The Harris County Election Night Central Drop-Off and Counting Station will be at Reliant Arena Hall D, Reliant Park. Media may park live trucks in the Drive Lane of Maroon Lot 15, in front of Reliant Arena Hall A. Election work areas in Hall D will be off limits to the media. There will be a designated media room and media work area.

As noted before, the prediction of 60% total early vote corresponds with a final turnout projection of about 750,000. I think that’s high, but we’re in uncharted waters, so who knows what could happen. I still expect the upper limit is more like 700,000, but we’ll know soon enough. In any event, today is the day we’ve been waiting for. Vote if you have not done so, and ensure your right to complain about the outcome afterward. I’ll be back later with updates and analysis.

County receives voting equipment

From the inbox:

On Monday, Sept. 20 at 11 a.m., Harris County received the first of what will be several shipments of election equipment from counties across Texas. The delivery begins the gradual gathering of equipment needed to conduct the Nov. 2nd election in Harris County. In the wake of the fire which destroyed the County’s election equipment, County Clerk Beverly Kaufman formulated a plan to conduct the County’s election utilizing purchased and loaned election equipment.

“I’m pleased to report that colleagues across the state have responded to the call for assistance,” said Kaufman, chief elections officer of the county. “And, I ‘m very thankful that the loaned and purchased equipment may enable a distribution at the 736 Election Day polling locations which meets the Texas Administrative Code (TAC) allocation formula.” The County Clerk anticipates having 5,300 direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting machines for Election Day.

According to Clerk Kaufman, the TAC Election Day allocation formula requires a poll to have two DREs for fewer than 300 voters, four for 301 to 600 voters, six for 601 to 900 voters and two for each additional 300 voters. On Election Day, the County Clerk expects to deploy no less than 4 and no more than 11 voting machines per a poll with paper ballots as a back-up.

The first batch of election equipment which totals 875 pieces comes from Ft. Bend and Tarrant County. Harris County has accepted assistance offers from 14 counties and one city. Together, the assisting counties are providing 2,146 pieces of electronic voting equipment and accessories, including 399 Judges Booth Controllers (JBC) 1,104 eSlates with booths and 278 Disabled Access Units with booths. Additionally, counties are providing 4,056 booths, 1,675 ballot boxes with accompanying locks and keys.

At this point, the assisting entities include Bexer, Brazoria, Comal, Dallas, Denton, Ft. Bend, Galveston, Gregg, Grimes, Jefferson, Lubbock, Montgomery, Travis, Tarrant and Wharton County, the City of Friendswood, and Arapahoe County in Colorado.

Good to have friends, obviously. Here’s hoping everything else goes off smoothly.

County says it’s as ready as it’s going to be for the election

We won’t have as many voting machines as we’d originally planned, but the Harris County Clerk thinks we’ll have enough to get by.

In addition to the [3100 new machines Commissioners Court authorized them to buy], the county has received pledges of an additional 1,637 loaner machines from other counties, County Clerk spokesman Hector de Leon said. Before the fire, the county had planned to use 5,726 eSlate voting machines and disabled access units. The county is awaiting delivery of 4,737 total machines from the vendor and other counties.

[…]

The replacements translate to an average of 6.4 machines at each of the 736 polling stations, compared with 7.8 machines per voting location originally planned.

County Clerk Beverly Kaufman also will give voters the option to cast paper ballots this year for the first time in a decade. Early voting begins on Oct. 18.

Assuming we actually receive all of those machines in time for the start of Early Voting, then we should be all right. Just curious here, who is planning to ask for a paper ballot when you show up to vote? Leave a comment and let me know.

Interview with Ann Harris Bennett

Ann Harris Bennett

Ann Harris Bennett is the Democratic nominee to succeed retiring Harris County Clerk Beverly Kaufman. Bennett is a 14-year employee of the county, having worked as the Court Coordinator for the 55th and 152nd District Courts. As we know, there’s a lot going on with the County Clerk’s office right now, and there will be even more after the election when all those eSlate machines need to be permanently replaced. These were some of the things we talked about:

Download the MP3 file

You can find a list of all interviews for this cycle on the 2010 Elections page.

Paper ballots: Views differ

One reason why Harris County will make paper ballots available to anyone who wants them this year is because Beverly Kaufman is afraid we won’t get enough replacement voting machines in time for the election.

In a letter to county elections officials across the state, Kaufman writes that Harris County is in “desperate need of election equipment. Despite a commitment from Hart InterCivic to manufacture and provide eSlate equipment to conduct the upcoming election, there is not sufficient time to produce enough equipment to meet the needs of Harris County.”

[…]

The urgent tone of Kaufman’s request for loaner machines from other counties contrasts with her calm assurances to the public. Even as the fire still burned, she asserted that voting will remain as convenient as ever.

The language of the letter to elections officials across the state is meant to communicate a serious situation, not a hopeless one, Kaufman said. “We needed to impress upon people that we need their help,” she said.

You can read the letter here. The situation is “desperate” because there’s no time to delay. If you can’t help us now, you can’t help us, and we really need your help. What fascinated me about this story was the completely divergent views about paper ballots expressed by the local party chairs:

Harris County Republican Party Chairman Jared Woodfill said he understands that Kaufman is operating under challenging conditions, but that the party prefers to use electronic voting as much as possible.

“It prevents fraud at the ballot box,” Woodfill said. “If you revert back to paper, you have a lot of the issues involving voter fraud.”

A hybrid system also would necessitate the re-training of election judges and poll watchers, he said.

The county’s Democratic Party actually recommended a hybrid election day voting system, said Chairman Gerry Birnberg.

Paper ballots are less vulnerable to fraud, Birnberg said.

“In a paper ballot situation, you can always go back and manually recount,” Birnberg said. “How do recount an electronic voting machine?”

I actually agree with Woodfill about the greater potential for fraud with paper ballots. It’s what we see today, as the vast majority of voter fraud investigations, including all of the ones that AG Greg Abbott prosecuted in his million-dollar effort to combat the “epidemic” of voter fraud he believed was happening, involved paper absentee ballots. The irony of all this, of course, is that none of this genuine fraud would have been affected in any way by the voter ID legislation that Woodfill and Abbott and so many other Republicans desperately want to pass, since fraud by voter impersonation is basically unheard of. Woodfill’s concern about the potential for fraud with paper ballots is reasonable, but he and his partymates have never shown any interest in doing something about it, as they prefer instead to try to solve a “problem” that doesn’t exist.

As for Birnberg, the point he’s making is that however many times you count an eSlate machine’s memory stick, you’ll always get the same answer regardless of whether or not the stick is faulty or fraudulent. This is true, but it’s also true that ballots that have been filled out manually may be counted or not depending on an election official’s interpretation of the voter’s intent. The example of certain counties in Florida in 2000, where ballots that had the Democratic box checked for President and the name “Al Gore” written in for the write-in slot were discarded because the voter had selected more than one candidate, will always serve as Exhibit A for this. Even without room for interpretation, if you have a million paper ballots to count by hand, I can just about guarantee you’ll get a different result the second and third and fourth times you count them. Having paper ballots that have been printed by a voting machine, which thus eliminates the “not filled out correctly” problem, and which can serve as a sanity check and an emergency backup in the event there are ever doubts about the integrity of a memory stick, is clearly the best situation, and it’s one I hope the next County Clerk will work towards as we start the process of buying permanent replacements for the lost eSlates.

I myself don’t believe that paper ballots in the context of in-person voting are more or less likely to be susceptible to fraud than voting machine ballots are. The basic procedure for securing them, which largely boils down to “Never let any ballot be in the sole unsupervised possession of a single person”, is the same either way. As long as we can ensure that, I’ll be as confident as I can be about the integrity of the process.

More on the county’s plan for the election

Here’s a press release from the County Clerk’s office about the current plans for conducting the election in the aftermath of the fire.

“The public should know that a plan had to be enacted quickly to be able to conduct the election in accordance with the election calendar set by the state,” said [Harris County Clerk Beverly] Kaufman, the chief election officer of the County. “Early voting will be conducted in a manner that is familiar to voters. We will obtain enough electronic voting equipment that is compatible with technology we have in place and allocate it to early voting locations as usual. The goal is the same for Election Day. But, if we fall short of the goal, paper ballots will be on hand to ensure that all voters are afforded equal access to the voting process at the poll.”

“As we face this unforeseen challenge, I’m hearten that all entities that have a role in creating the county’s election infrastructure are working as a team to ensure all registered voters are provided access to the voting process in a manner consistent with voting laws,” added Kaufman. Texas election law provides that the administration of an election must be a coordinated effort between the chief election officer of the county, the chairpersons of the political parties, citizens (via their political party structure) and County government officials.

For this election, at least one electronic voting machine that provides people with disabilities the opportunity to vote independently, the Disabled Automated Unit (DAU), will be allocated to each of the polling location. More importantly, on Election Day, 736 polling locations are scheduled to be opened. An increase of eight compared to the 728 polls opened during the 2008 November election.

“It is more important than ever for voters to know all the important dates leading up to Election Day and take advantage of the voting options which the law affords them,” Kaufman concluded, urging registered voters to visit the County Clerk’s election website or Texas Secretary of State’s website to obtain the calendar for this election cycle.

As I said before, I feel pretty good about the county’s ability to move forward and conduct a reasonably smooth election in the wake of this catastrophe. That’s to their credit, but I still have to wonder why they’re just making this sort of contingency plan now, instead of already having one that has had some kind of simulation testing performed on it. Is it really the case that nobody ever wondered what we might do if the building where every single machine is stored caught fire or flooded or something? As the Chron opines, we damn well better give it some thought now, so that we’re never in this position again. And while we’re at it, since we’re going to have to replace all these machines anyway, let’s also give some thought to equipping those replacements with printers, so that there can be a paper backup available for every vote. At the very least, let’s make sure whatever we get has the latest and greatest security features.

Paper ballots on the menu

The county’s plan for dealing with the loss of all of its voting machines includes some low technology.

Despite a fire that destroyed Harris County’s voting machines Friday, County Clerk Beverly Kaufman said she intends to keep all polling places open with replacement machines on Nov. 2.

Commissioners Court approved Kaufman’s emergency plan this afternoon to spend $13.6 million to buy 2,325 electronic voting machines and supporting equipment.

“Your polling place is going to be open early and on election day. You’ll be able to vote conveniently as you’re accustomed to doing,” Kaufman said afterward.

Kaufman’s request included 1.4 million paper ballots, which will be distributed to polling stations as a backup in case a shortage of machines leads to long lines.

As PDiddie notes, it was reported by Mary Benton that paper ballots will be made available to “anyone who asks” for one. The statement about keeping all polling places open is to address the concerns of Democratic elected officials, who wrote a letter to the Justice Department about the possibility of precinct consolidation and fewer voting machines in minority areas.

I feel like the immediate concerns have been addressed, and I’m reassured that everyone involved is going to do the right thing. There’s still a lot of uncertainty, though – how many machines will we have, will election judges know what to do with the paper ballots, what happens if the fire marshal makes a ruling of arson – and I don’t see that getting cleared up any time soon. I’d still like to know why it is that all the machines were stored in one place, and why we didn’t already have a written disaster recovery plan. Imagine how screwed we’d be if this had all happened a month from now. We’d better take the lessons we learn from this very seriously, that’s for sure. Hair Balls has more.

Cause of fire that destroyed voting machines still not determined

I sure hope it’s not arson. Lord knows, though, there’s a million conspiracy theories you could spin if it turns out it was.

Houston’s fire marshal’s office hasn’t made a ruling on whether Friday’s early-morning fire was accidental or deliberately set, said Harris County Clerk Beverly Kaufman, who hopes to hear something on the cause early this week.

“It would break my heart to think someone would do something like this to the election process,” she said, adding that she was unaware of anyone who might have had a motive to burn down the building.

Maybe you don’t have a suspect in mind, but it’s not hard at all to imagine a motive. Everyone knows Bill White will need a strong showing in Harris County to be able to win the Governor’s race. Perhaps someone who doesn’t want him to win decided to do something about it. I’m not saying this is what happened – we don’t even know if the fire was deliberately set or not yet – just that this is what everyone will be thinking if it turns out it was arson. See the comment thread at Political Wire and Burka for examples of this. Believe me, I very much hope this is a tragic accident.

Kaufman said she and the office’s election administrator, John German, are focusing on figuring out where 15 to 30 staff members will report for work, what the county needs to hold the election and how to execute and pay for the plan. The office is exploring whether to borrow machines from counterparts across the state, among other possibilities.

Harris County Commissioners Court will meet in an emergency session Monday to receive the county clerk’s proposed recovery plan.

Joe Stinebaker, spokesman for Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, said Saturday he hasn’t a clue whether the financial needs will be minor or major. County reserve funds may be available for the expense, Stinebaker said.

So, um, does this mean that the county didn’t already have a disaster recovery plan in place? If you’re going to have all of the voting equipment in one place, shouldn’t someone have asked the question “Hey, what do we do if that place burns down”? Speaking as an IT guy, I can tell you that businesses ask these questions, and they make it someone’s job to come up with and test a plan to deal with things like a sudden, catastrophic loss of a data center. Is this really saying that the county had never considered this particular scenario? Because that sure seems like very poor planning to me.

Elections equipment damaged in fire

Uh oh.

Harris County voting machines were heavily damaged in a 3-alarm fire at warehouse in north Houston early this morning.

The fire broke out about 4:15 a.m. at the county’s election equipment storage facility in the 600 block of Canino near Marnie, which is near the Melrose Park, fire officials said.

Firefighters extinguished the flames at the football-field size warehouse about four hours later.

No injuries were reported.

Voting machines, including eSlate equipment, were stored at the nearly 27,000-square-foot facility, county officials said. They were heavily damaged in the blaze.

County election officials said they expect to talk with neighboring counties to possibly use some of their voting machines in the upcoming election.

This could be very, very bad. County Clerk Beverly Kaufman has sent out a press release saying she will have a briefing to address this today at 11 AM at the 4th Floor Conference Room, Harris County Administration Building at 1001 Preston. I sure hope the county has a disaster recovery plan for this sort of thing.

UPDATE: County Clerk Kaufman puts a good face on the situation.

Harris County Clerk Beverly Kaufman this morning said she is confident of timely, clean elections in November, even as a fire that destroyed the county’s entire inventory of 10,000 electronic voting machines still burned.

Kaufman urged voters to cast their ballots early to help the county cope with a possible shortage of equipment on election day.

“Because I don’t expect to have 10,000 pieces to work with, no matter what we do, I’m sure that we’re going to be putting on a full court press urging people to vote early,” Kaufman said.

Early voting begins in 52 days, so you can bet they’ll both be pushing for people to use it, since it requires fewer machines, and will be scrambling to get enough of them in place for it. According to Hair Balls:

The Secretary of State is helping Kaufman reach out to the 114 other counties in Texas that use the same voting machines as Harris County and she expects to receive many loaners. She is also negotiating replacement equipment from the vendor, though Kaufman did not have specifics at a Friday morning media conference.

I sure hope we can get enough equipment. Best of luck getting it done.

Endorsement watch: HCC trustees

The Chron endorses in the HCC Trustee races, which even I had forgotten they hadn’t yet done.

In the westside District VI, Sandie Meyers is unopposed as the replacement for incumbent Robert Mills Worsham.

In District III, which stretches from near southeast Houston to Beltway 8, the Chronicle endorses one-term incumbent Diane Olmos Guzman , a public relations specialist and small business owner with a B.A. in journalism from the University of Houston.

I confess, I know exactly nothing about the District III race. I don’t recall seeing any endorsements being made in this one contested race by most of the usual endorsing organizations. Which, when you recall that these are for six-year terms that have no resign-to-run requirement, is a shame. Anyone have any thoughts about this one?

Outgoing District VIII incumbent Abel Davila embarrassed himself and HCC by leading constituents to think he was running for re-election to the central and eastside district, only to be a no-show at the filing deadline. His brother-in-law, Arturo Aguilar, filed instead but then dropped out of the race two days later.

Luckily, retired educator and community activist Eva Loredo had the foresight to register as a write-in candidate and is in position to pick up the pieces left by Davila and provide District VIII with a qualified representative.

That’s my district, which I hadn’t really realized till I got a mailer from Loredo over the weekend; I’ll have a scan of it up shortly. Your HCC Trustee district isn’t printed on your voter registration card – you need to find your registration online to see what district you’re in. She’s the first write-in candidate I’ve ever voted for, and may I say that’s a pain in the rear to do on the eSlate machine. Better than having to pay for a special election because there were no candidates on the ballot, though. I can’t wait to see how many votes she actually gets.