Out with the old, in with the new voting machines

Laura Watkins and voting machines

Palo Pinto County Elections Administrator Laura Watkins demonstrates the county’s new electronic voting machines and a polling site control unit at Wednesday’s Rotary Club of Mineral Wells meeting.

For the first time since Palo Pinto County went to electronic voting in 2006, local voters casting ballots in the Nov. 6 elections will do so on new machines.

County commissioners this year appropriated $306,000 to purchase 58 new voting machines – including 18 handicap voting pads that will allow people with mobility challenges to vote curbside from their vehicles. The machines are the Verity voting system product line made, sold and supported by Austin-based Hart InterCivic.

“Our commissioners listened to us a couple of years back when we said we would need some new voting equipment,” Palo Pinto County Elections Administrator Laura Watkins told Rotary Club of Mineral Wells members on Wednesday. “Ours were outdated. We knew eventually we would start having problems.”

Watkins brought with her one of the new voting machines and a polling site controller to demonstrate their functionality.

She sold commissioners on the Hart InterCivic machines over the system from the county’s previous electronic voting machines provider, ES&S, based on costs, features, support, security and warranties.

Hart InterCivic has been involved in Texas elections for more than 100 years, beginning in 1912 when it delivered paper ballots to counties by horse-drawn wagons. Palo Pinto County acquired its paper ballots from Hart InterCivic before going to electronic voting 12 years ago.

Today, Hart InterCivic is in about half of Texas’ counties and 18 states. In the November 2016 election, 58 percent of the voters in Texas cast their ballots on one of 3,354 Verity voting machines that were in use, according to the company.

Polling site officials will have a main command machine used to oversee the individual polling machines onsite. One big difference is that no longer will a polling site official accompany the voter to their machine and start it for them. The voter will do that.

To sign in to a polling site the voter will present one of their forms of accepted identification – typically a driver’s license. That is scanned and the person’s eligibility to vote verified through the county’s elections polling book. The voter will be given a receipt with an access code they will take with them and use to start their machine and cast their ballot.

If a voter needs assistance, there is a button on the screen that will alert the polling official on their command unit.

The county instituted countywide voting two years ago – meaning a county resident can vote at any county polling site. The system will produce their ballot based on their address and information. Watkins said countywide voting has increased elections participation.

Watkins told Rotarians there are 17,818 people currently registered to vote in the county, including 7,931 in Mineral Wells.

The Nov. 6 ballot includes mid-term federal and state races along with two special interest elections – one calling to make Mineral Wells completely wet by eliminating the private club restrictions on restaurants to sell liquor by the drink and a so-called Tier II countywide election that, if passed, will require cities conduct an election before it could annex land.

Watkins said the important thing for residents to know is the county’s electronic voting system and machines are safe and secure.

“They are not connected to the Internet,” Watkins said of the electronic voting devices. “None of this is connected to the Internet. The only thing connected to the Internet is the poll book. It is connected to our office. Can monitor number of voters from office.”

She said the county should be able to receive in the near future some federal Help Americans Vote Act (HAVA) funds to help further ensure system security.

“We will get in on that in January,” said Watkins. “The voting equipment is not hackable in Texas. What was hacked in some places were the voter rolls. Our county did not have that problem. We are locked down pretty tight.”


Verity voting machine
Palo Pinto County Commissioners approved the purchase of 58 Verity electronic voting machines made, sold and supported by Hart InterCivic, based in Austin.

She said the machines have three points of security and internal redundancies to save and protect data and information.

“Everything is password protected by three passwords through codes,” Watkins said.

She told Rotarians social media has dramatically changed elections. She addressed the issue in the City of Mineral Wells’ bond election year in which one person disregarded polling site rules by taking a picture of his ballot and posting it to Facebook.

“Social media has changed elections so much and it will continue to change elections,” she said. “Sometimes in a good way and lots of times in a bad way. It’s not that we don’t want people taking pictures of their ballot, it is that we don’t want people taking pictures of somebody else’s ballot. Voting is private. It is your own thing to do. It is private to do. Nobody should ever know how you voted.”

With 16 years’ elections administration experience in Palo Pinto and Parker counties, Watkins said voter confidence is of utmost importance.

“Our biggest goal in this process with bringing forth security to our office is navigating the changes that the state and federal government are putting forth to us and then instilling voter confidence. That is the biggest thing is the voter confidence,” she said.

Key election dates:

• Sept. 25 – National Voter Registration Day.

• Oct. 9 – the last day to register to vote for Nov. 6 election.

• Oct. 22 – the first day of early voting.

• Oct. 26 – the last day to request a ballot by mail.

• Nov. 6 – election day.

For more information, visit the Palo Pinto County Elections Office here or call 940-659-1217. You can reach Watkins by email at laura.watkins@co.palo-pinto.tx.us.

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