Several residents presented a petition during the Burnet County Commissioners Court meeting December 19 requesting the county invest in a new voting system.
“Because Burnet County’s voters are good voters, we believe that they deserve the best, most secure voting machines available and respectfully request that the Burnet County Commissioners Court authorize the purchase of a voting system with a verifiable paper trail before the General Election in November 2020,” Marti Pogue told the commissioners.
Pogue is the Burnet County Democratic Party chairwoman.
The petition contained 92 signatures.
Pogue outlined concerns over the county’s current system, which uses HART Intercivic eSlate machines.
But not everyone is ready for a switch.
“I have had a detailed conversation with Doug Ferguson, and I believe our equipment to be sound and satisfactory,” said Kara Chasteen, a Burnet County resident and the Burnet County Republican Party chairwoman.
Ferguson is the Burnet County elections administrator. His department is responsible for the balloting machines and county elections.
Ronald Levick, another resident speaking out for the replacement of the current machines, called them “ancient.”
Since the petition was presented during the public comment section of the December 19 meeting and was not on the agenda, commissioners could not discuss it.
Pogue said that, along with not providing a paper trail, the current machines are at least 12 years old with an operational expectancy of eight years and have a tendency to break down.
In an email regarding concerns over the eSlate machines, Ferguson stated they are approximately 14 years old, but, he pointed out, according to manufacturer HART Intercivic, they have a lifespan of “10 to 15 years or even longer.”
“As far as machines breaking down, we have had two Judge’s Booth Controllers malfunction in the past five years since I’ve been here, and both machines have been repaired or replaced,” Ferguson stated in the email.
He noted the occasional malfunction of an eSlate monitor, roughly one a year, but the equipment is then sent off for repairs.
Addressing concerns over outdated technology, Ferguson said the eSlate machines are not like personal computers or smartphones that require regular updates. In fact, he pointed out, that is what makes them reliable balloting devices.
“The eSlate voting machine is a simple computer device that performs one function, and that is to display the ballot and securely record cast vote records,” Ferguson stated in the email. “It is never connected to a computer network or internet, never receives ‘Windows updates,’ is basically a standalone unit, much like a record player or DVD player. They have a specific purpose and will last a very long time doing that one thing, maybe two or three times a year.”
The biggest issue Ferguson and his staff have faced while using the eSlate machines is the pins in the connectors being bent when the devices are plugged in at polling stations. But it’s a quick fix or replacement.
And with no network or internet connections, eSlate machines are not susceptible to viruses or other nefarious activity, he said.
Pogue told commissioners that because the machines do not have touchscreens, they don’t leave paper trails that can be audited and are vulnerable to hacking.
“Even if some of these complaints about the machines have been unfounded, the publicity and growing concerns about ballot security lead voters to feel insecure about their votes,” she added. “As voters become less confident that their vote will be counted, they become less willing to vote.”
Ferguson said eSlate machines are designed so that “votes are stored in three different secure locations and are easily retrieved for counting.
“I’ve worked with these machines here in Burnet County and also in Hays County combined for eleven years, and I am extremely confident in their ability to securely and accurately record votes,” he added.
If the county opted to purchase new machines, it would come at a cost. Pogue pointed out that, as more emphasis is put on election security, at some point, Burnet County will have to consider new balloting systems.
“And that cost is only going to go up the longer we wait,” she said.
Pogue said she had spoken with the Lampasas County elections administrator about the purchase earlier this year of new voting machines to replace eSlates. She told Burnet County commissioners that the Lampasas official estimated, based on Burnet County’s size, the cost of new machines would be about $500,000.
In what little he was allowed to say since the petition wasn’t on the agenda, Burnet County Judge James Oakley said it would likely cost more than $1 million for a new voting machine system. And with the county in the midst of the 2019-20 fiscal year, even if commissioners wanted to purchase new machines, it could not be done under the current budget.
Plus, he said, there is no evidence of any problems with the current system.
Republican Party Chairwoman Chasteen added that there’s a possibility the state legislature will tackle voting security in the next session, slated for January 2021.
It would not be wise, she said, for the county to spend more than $800,000 on new voting machines now if the state changes the rules later, making any new machines obsolete.
For Pogue, it’s about election integrity. Which is something on which everyone could agree.
“With all the evidence coming to light about other nations’ efforts to interfere with our elections, we need to make every effort to make sure our elections are secure,” she said. “Burnet County needs to make it a priority to safeguard our democracy.”
Anyone with questions about the eSlate voting machines the county uses can visit the Burnet County Elections webpage. Clicking a link on the page lets people “test drive a voting machine.”