TX – Fossils Running Amok: Subversion of Democracy by Old Election Machines and Travis County’s Unique Solution

By: Katie Teeters

In September of 2015, the Brennan Center for Justice published a report based on ten months of research, which looked at problems arising from aging voting machines. First, the report found that a majority of election districts in forty-three states are using ten-year old machines. There are fourteen states with machines fifteen-years or older. Considering the rapid pace of technology in the past fifteen years, these election machines are truly relics of the past. To illustrate how ancient these machines are; in 2000 Wikipedia nor iTunes existed. Many of the voting machines have minimal memory, such as in Allen County where the machine’s memory cards can contain only 250 megabytes of data. Samsung’s new basic Galaxy S6 smartphone can hold up to 32 gigabytes of data, which is approximately 128 times more memory than those machines.

These old voter machines can lead to multiple problems, which could actually pose risks to democracy. The primary threat is that these machines will crash or fail leading to long lines, and possibly even lost votes. Security flaws are inevitable in these machines, and are vulnerable to external parties recording “voting data or inject[ing] malicious data,” into the system. Finally, older touch screen voting machines are known to record “flipped votes,” where the machine registers the name of a candidate not chosen by the voter. The concerns with old voting machines are not trivial. All of these issues could result in a subversion of democracy. The machine could not count a vote, count a vote incorrectly, or be controlled by an outside source. It is evident that new voting machines are needed. Unfortunately, the costs are massive, and with no federal aid, it has been left up to individual counties or states to come up with a solution.

Many counties, such as Matagorda County in Texas, have reacted by buying new voting systems from Hart InterCivic. However, one look at their website and makes clear that these are not the machines of the future. They might be HAVA-compliant and federally certified, but these machines still look like something out of the 90s. A more interesting solution is an independent approach that several counties are taking to design their own voting system. Travis County in Texas exemplifies this approach. Unimpressed by the systems on the market, Dana DeBeauvoir, the clerk of Travis County, decided to assemble a team of experts to design the county’s new system. The system developed is called STAR-Vote, and a recent request for information was released seeking input from experts to help develop, build, and implement the new voting system. The new machines would use off-the-shelf electronic equipment, such as tablets. It will then print out a ballot to be placed in the ballot box, which will scan the ballot as it goes in. The system will also print out a receipt for the voter, which the voter can use to log into a website, and check that their vote was counted, and that the machine recorded their choices correctly.

Travis County hopes to have this system in place by the 2018 gubernatorial race. It will be interesting to see the result of this new and creative voting system. Hopefully, STAR-Vote will produce all the attributes that it stands for – Secure, Transparent, Auditable, and Reliable.

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