Paper requirement for Texas voting machines dies in legislature

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A bill that would’ve required Texas voting machines to include individual paper records of all votes stalled in the state legislature Saturday, to the consternation of computer scientists and election-security analysts who advocate against all-electronic voting systems.

House Bill 2909, which proposed other revisions to the state’s election laws, would’ve mandated that by 2024, all voting machines in Texas use either voter-marked paper ballots or — if using a digital interface — be capable of printing a paper receipt of all recorded votes. While the bill had been approved by both the Texas House and Senate, it failed to be approved by a conference committee before the biennial legislative session expired.

Paper records are essential to verifying the results of an election, experts say, and Saturday’s result means that Texas — home to 16 million registered voters — will lag behind as other states race to overhaul their voting systems.

“A paper trail is the most basic element of a secure election system, and it’s unfortunate that legislators could not muster the will to protect Texas voters,” said Dan Wallach, a professor of computer science at Houston’s Rice University. “It’s essential that we keep improving security because our voting systems face a variety of adversaries, foreign and domestic. Paper ballots are a critical step to protecting the integrity of our elections.”

The paper-trail requirement originated as a component of a controversial Texas Senate bill that would’ve created a rash of new restrictions on election activity, including prohibitions on poll workers helping voters who need assistance at the ballot box and the designation of felony offenses for errors on voter registration forms. The paper-ballot provision, though, was attached to HB 2909 with bipartisan support after the initial Senate measure fizzled.

State and local election officials across the country are redesigning many of their systems in the wake of attempts by the Russian government to interfere in the 2016 presidential race. And many of those efforts are focused on replacing direct-recording electronic, or DRE, machines that do not produce paper records of votes.

The U.S. Election Assistance Commission last year awarded Texas $24.4 million as part of a $380 million round of grants for states to modernize their election systems. While many states plan to use most or all of their grants to buy new voting equipment, Texas only plans to commit $500,000 on new machines, instead spending the majority on new auditing and cybersecurity tools and personnel. (In a document filed to the EAC, the Texas Department of State wrote that it plans to use that smaller sum to help “facilitate” counties’ purchases of new voting machines rather than outright acquisition.)

But a steady chorus of researchers has urged state and local officials to be expedient in ditching their all-electronic balloting devices. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine issued a report last September saying all elections should be conducted with human-readable paper ballots “as soon as possible.” An analysis of machines used in South Carolina found that several hundred votes in local races last year were improperly counted because of software glitches. And a 21-member commission studying Pennsylvania’s voting machines called the DRE devices used by 83 percent of that state’s voters a “clear and present danger.”

Currently, Texas uses a variety of voting machines, though many of its 254 counties still rely on touchscreen units that don’t produce paper records, according to a March report by New York University’s Brennan Center for Law and Justice. Among those still using an all-electronic platform is Harris County, home to Houston and 2.2 million registered voters, though the county’s recently inaugurated clerk has said she plans to purchase a paper-based system.

But with House Bill 2909 failing to pass, any statewide action is unlikely to occur before the legislature convenes again in 2021.

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election security, Texas, voting machines
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