ELECTION INTEGRITY THROUGH INNOVATION
The Republican Party of Texas recently completed their State Convention in Houston, Texas. Every two years, each party holds precinct, county, and state conventions. Delegates come together from all over the state to discuss and update the party platform and legislative priorities for the next two years. This year, Cass County was represented by eight delegates including myself. The Republican Party of Texas subsequently released their list of Legislative Priorities for the 88th Session (2023-2024) of the Texas Legislature. Chief among them is to protect our elections. Election Integrity has been a hot topic for several years. In 2021 the Texas Legislature passed a measure authored by our Texas State Senator Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola) designed to, in his own words, “make it easy to vote and hard to cheat.” Among the reforms were to strengthen poll watcher protection and bring about transparency by utilizing technology throughout the electoral process. This complemented the previous election integrity measures which mandated that by 2024, each county have paper verifiable voting systems.
Since serving as County Judge, I’ve discovered that Cass County is two years ahead of this mandated requirement and has already procured and implemented the requisite voting machines in elections. I can take no credit for this achievement but County Clerk Amy Varnell, Judge Wilbanks, and the Cass County Commissioner’s Court deserve recognition. These new machines are not inexpensive but Cass County was able to secure grant funding to offset $120,000 of the purchase price of the new equipment. Additionally, Cass County smartly partnered with neighboring Harrison and Marion Counties to order equipment at the same time which achieved a discount of $53,000 to minimize the financial burden. It is my hope that Cass County will continue to be an example rural Texas County for innovation, transparency, and accessibility. The new voting equipment has already successfully been used in the November 2021 constitutional amendment election, the recent 2022 primary election, and runoff election.
The new voting machines are Hart InterCivic Verity Print systems. This equipment produces a paper ballot that voters mark and scan themselves before exiting the polling place. Each polling place is equipped with Verity Print, which is the device the election worker uses to verify the voter and select the appropriate ballot. An OkiData printer then prints the physical ballot. There is a touch writer device available for disabled voters to make their selections on a ballot that appears on a screen. However, non-disabled voters may also use this device if they choose. Finally, the voter scans their ballot, and their vote is digitally recorded by the scanner.
The paper ballot is retained in a secure ballot bag inside a ballot box. Election workers bring the bags on election night along with the scanners to the voting building in Linden where votes are tallied from the Vdrives in each scanner. These systems are “whitelisted” which means they will only run using administrator approved applications and the county election officials perform required Hash Testing on the equipment before each election to ensure the system has not been tampered with and that it is only running approved applications. No part of the voting equipment is ever connected to the internet.
The computer used to tally the votes on election night is also not connected to the internet. All equipment stays locked in the voting building in a locked room within that building as required by the legislature’s recent voter integrity bill. The legislature also mandated that a law enforcement officer be present each time votes are being tallied.
As we look towards future elections there are several worthy initiatives worth exploring either statewide or locally. Implementing an early voting location in Hughes Springs to complement the existing early voting locations in Atlanta and Linden would be a great start. Eliminating the three-day gap between early voting and election day is one proposal that I believe has promise. Another proposal worth considering is to move to countywide polling places rather than the confusing system of having so many geographically remote voting locations which can sometimes be far away from a voter’s actual residence.
Many election workers reported turning folks away at the polling location due to the voter being in the wrong location. The recent redistricting impacted many residents in this regard. Countywide locations could eliminate that issue. With innovative technology, comes new capability to ease the burden of voting, improve turnout, and voter engagement while ensuring our elections are secure.