Public equipment test moves election one step closer
By MIKE EDDLEMAN
GEORGETOWN — Concerns about elections integrity and the equipment used for casting ballots have been talked about extensively in recent years, but the Williamson County Elections Department said voters can trust the process and the machines as they go to the polls.
“We want people to feel confident in our voting systems,” said Brandon Jenkins, Voting Systems Analyst with the Williamson County Elections Department. “We want them to feel confident in the way we are doing things. I think one of the things I appreciate about how (Elections Administrator Chris Davis) runs the department is he is always trying his best to actively engage the community. We want people to know that we’re doing things the right way. We want them to know how things are working.”
The public testing of electronic voting equipment was held Sept. 19, when the Elections Department brought in 21 testers to ensure each machine is programmed correctly and is capturing votes cast as it should.
By state law, testing must be done before every election, including run offs, and if changes are made to the ballot for some reason once the test is completed, it must be done again.
“Anytime we do new programming, and run offs are technically new programming, we will test the election,” Jenkins said. “If after this we find out the state has made a change to the ballot, say ballot order for a race has changed, or a certain entity has changed their ballot order and we have to change the programming, we would need to rerun the public test.”
The process begins long before the volunteers come in to test the machines.
“Before they come in I will generate what’s called the test deck, and that’s a group of ballots that are pre-marked, and they are pre-marked in a way that every individual, in every ballot style, in every precinct will have a vote cast for them,” Jenkins said. “We will be testing every possible selection in every race in every ballot style in every precinct because we want to make sure that under any circumstances that votes are being read correctly and being calculated correctly in our software.”
For this election, which includes 21 different entities, Jenkins said there are 3,500 votable ballot combinations to be tested.
“I think this is the most complicated election we’ve had as far as programming and ballot size,” he said. “We have 87 separate ballot styles. These are some long ballots this election. Most of the people who are voting will have six separate iVo screens to vote on.
For the testing, ballots are generated, then separated into manageable groups – between 100 and 130 ballots – for the volunteer testers, which take three to four hours to vote.
“We run a report to verify there are no votes currently on the machine, then they begin voting the group of ballots,” Jenkins said. “When they finish voting that group of ballots, we will then run a results tape, and we will compare that results tape to the pre-results generated from that group of ballots. If they match we move on, if they don’t we’ll have that group of ballots revoted.”
The next step is to do one more tabulation and comparison.
“I will scan all those ballots through our machine that scans the ballots and tabulates all the totals,” he said. “We will then take the results from scanning all the ballots and the results from all the votes cast (at the test) and run those through our computer and confirm that they match. If they match, we can then proceed prepping all our machines because we will have an accurate group of programming.”
Jenkins has not had any issues with any tests in his time with Williamson County, but he said they do occur.
“We don’t often have issues with the tabulation of votes at this point and time,” he said. “If anything, we’ll occasionally see a typo and that will need to be corrected. This isn’t the first test, this is just the first public test. I we haven’t had to do a retest in the last two years, and before that I couldn’t speak to it because I wasn’t here. I don’t think it’s terribly common because we do have a pretty thorough testing process leading up to this.”
If the end result is a clean test, then the machines are ready for the election. If not, it all must be done again.
“This public test is making sure these machines are tabulating votes correctly,” Jenkins said. “There is a procedure if we do not have correct tabulation. That procedure is us having to reschedule a public test and then have a new and separate public test after we’ve gone through and identified the issues with the programming. We cannot use these machines until we have an accurate public test. We’re doing this to prove that our programming is accurate and that what people are expecting to have voted on is what will be generated to us.”
When early voting begins, those going to the polls can feel confident there are procedures in place to make sure data is retrieved and secure.
Vote information is stored in three different places in the machine memory and that data can be captured from those places even if the machine is broken.
“These are incredibly reliable,” Jenkins said. “Even if a machine stops working in the field, we may not do anything with that machine the rest of that day, but we can bring that machine back in and capture the vote information off of it.”
Ultimately, the department wants to ensure Williamson County voters are confident and comfortable with the security and accuracy of the election process.
“Right now elections is behind the veil to a lot of people,” he said. “Nobody knows what’s going on, and I think once people have the opportunity to hear and see how we process our elections it relieves some of that stress and gives people confidence in the process.”
The last opportunity for area voters to register for the Nov. 6 general election is Tuesday, Oct. 9.
Williamson County election officials encourage everyone to check their status on the department’s website at www.wilco.org/departments/elections. On the site, new Williamson County voters can download the registration form or find information regarding name and address changes. The site also has information on critical election dates and sample ballots.
Registration forms can be mailed in, but voters can also bring their applications to the elections office – or complete them at the office – at 301 SE Inner Loop, Ste 104 in Georgetown.
The rules regarding Texas’ Voter ID law have also changed slightly. The primary difference is that acceptable forms of identification on election day must not have expired more than four years before the date of presentation. The original law stated 60 days.
Acceptable forms if identification include a drivers license, election identification certificate, personal ID card issued by the Texas Department of Public Safety, military ID card, citizenship certificate, passport, or a license to carry a handgun. More details on the changes to Voter ID laws can be found at votetexas.gov.
Early voting begins Oct. 22 and runs daily through Nov. 2 at 14 permanent sites throughout the county. Temporary sites will also be available for voter convenience, including in Liberty Hill Oct. 26-27 at the Williamson County Annex at 2407 RR 1869.
During early voting, as on election day, registered voters can cast a ballot at any polling location within the county.
Voting machines will be used for early voting and on election day.