Shortly after the 2000 presidential election, Harris County became one of the country’s early adopters of electronic voting, replacing the error-prone punch-card system implemented in the early 1980s.
Voters lauded the new interface, including the rotary wheel used to operate the machines. Nearly two decades later, Harris County still is using the same equipment, making it the largest county in the United States without an auditable paper trail.
That is set to change as soon as the May 2021 elections, after Commissioners Court on Tuesday unanimously approved a $54 million deal to replace the current eSlate machines with ones featuring touch screens, a paper backup and features that make voting more accessible for seniors and residents with disabilities.
The new machines allow voters to select candidates or ballots measures on a touchpad instead of the rotating wheel, now derided by critics as a clunky feature that some voters mistakenly have used to cast ballots for the wrong candidate.
After voters complete and review their ballots, the machines will print out the selections, at which point voters again can review their ballots for any erroneous choices. They then will take the printed ballots to an electronic ballot box that will record the votes and store the paper ballots, in case the election is called into question and needs to be audited.
“Really, the utility of the paper record is, instead of having to program our machines to spit out receipts, we are getting the record as the voter sees it, into a ballot box that, should we need to count or recount or pull something back later, we can pull it up,” Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria said Wednesday.
The election results will be stored on two separate hard drives for each voting machine, one of which can only be accessed with a special key provided to Longoria’s office. The new safeguards are expected to provide stronger security than the current system, in which votes are recorded on mobile memory cards that are brought to a central counting site, uploaded onto a computer and tallied.
Longoria also said the new machines may provide faster election results, as votes can only be tallied under the current system using an outdated computer processing software with slower processing speeds than what is widely available today. Harris County election nights have famously stretched well past midnight during previous elections because of the pace of the election results being uploaded.
Though Harris County did not experience any major election malfunctions or security issues using the eSlate machines, experts warned that the aging technology would be inadequate if the election were called into question because of a cyberattack or then-President Donald Trump’s repeated claims that the 2020 election would be “rigged.”
The new machines will be supplied by Hart InterCivic Inc., the same company that provides the county’s current stock of eSlate voting machines. The new system, called InterCivic Verity Voting, was approved in 2019 by the Texas Secretary of State and already used in Tarrant County.
Under the contract approved Tuesday, Hart will provide Harris County with 12,000 machines and an assortment of other election equipment, including voting booths and ballot boxes.
Among the other upgrades are what officials say will be a more robust voting system for residents with disabilities. Longoria described the existing setup as “primitive,” in which voters use red and green “paddles,” or buttons, that replace the scrolling wheel and enter button.
“Now you’ll have, essentially, a remote control attached to the machine that has directional arrows and multiple buttons, so that folks with a different kind of physical need will have the same access to voting,” Longoria said.
The elections administrator’s office will receive the first shipment of devices by March 1. Longoria and her staff will start familiarizing themselves with the machines and decide whether to use them for the May 2021 local elections. If they opt to wait, the machines would be in place for the March 2022 primaries.
“The really big deciding factor for me is, how long will it take to train all of our internal staff on these new machines to feel comfortable with them? And then the turnaround time for us to develop those training materials so that we can really safely and fairly train up the different clerks and judges that will have to use these on Election Day,” Longoria said.
Before commissioners approved the contract with Hart InterCivic on Tuesday, county officials had declined to release information about the deal or any details about the new machines.
The machines were selected by a committee of representatives from each county commissioner’s office, the county judge and technical experts from the county clerk and elections administrator’s staff, according to Longoria’s office. Longoria defended the lack of available details prior to the vote.
“If you release too much information, if you release too many specifics, then you have lobbyists come out of the woodwork,” she said. “People start, without all the information, really lobbying you, and then there’s always a sense of impropriety.”
Zach Despart contributed to this report.