Despite assurances from state, group doesn’t have faith in elections

Voters at the polls (KXAN Photo)
Voters at the polls (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Ahead of Wednesday’s debate Donald Trump continues to say this election could be “rigged” against him. State officials say that is not the case.

After being turned away elsewhere a group of people want their lawmakers to hear them.

“We want our paper back up records!” Dr. Laura Pressley yelled amid a clapping audience in the basement of the State Capitol.

Dr. Pressley is a former Austin City Council candidate and teamed with members of the Libertarian party, representatives from State Senator Don Huffines, State Rep. Molly White and LULAC. They brought 1,000 letters to lawmakers saying they won’t feel this election is legitimate unless all counties have more paper backup records to go with electronic voting machines.

That is despite assurances from local county officials that voting machines are not connected to the internet so they cannot be hacked into.

“Any computer system can be hacked so the legislature designed these paper backups as a check and balance,” said Pressley, describing how a poll worker could misplace, alter, or change out memory cards each voting machine has inside. Those poll workers are responsible for bringing the cards to the county central counting headquarters.

Dr. Pressley once sued the city over an election recount. In 2014, Laura Pressley lost the runoff election for Austin City Council District 4. She filed a lawsuit, claiming the electronic voting system counted some votes twice. A state district judge threw out the case, but Pressley appealed. She tells us the case is still pending.

Here’s the crux of it. The election code is huge and has confusing and sometimes overlapping parts. This is similar to many laws in Texas. Courts are responsible for setting out what’s what.

Dr. Pressley points to Chapter 66 of the code, the section that deals with storing of records and supplies after the election. The state requires all county governments to keep paperwork in a series of envelopes. Below is a list of all the forms:

Sec. 66.023. CONTENTS OF ENVELOPE NO. 2. Envelope no. 2 must contain:

(1) a copy of the precinct returns;

(2) a tally list;

(3) the original of the poll list;

(4) the signature roster;

(5) the precinct early voting list;

(6) any affidavits completed at the polling place except affidavits required to be placed in envelope no. 4; and

(7) any certificates of appointment of watchers.

In bold is “a copy of precinct returns.” That’s where Dr. Pressley says the counties and Secretary of State’s office is breaking the law. She says election workers need to keep the tapes — or tally print outs — from each precinct in a hard copy form. She says these could then be used to verify that voters in a specific precinct voted the way they did.

“[There’s] a lot of speculation and some claims without warrant,” said Alicia Pierce, spokeswoman for the secretary of state. She attended the press conference and says another section of the election code overrules the requirements for the copy of precinct returns. She points to the part in the law updated in 2009 on the direct recording of electronic voting machines.

Sec. 129.002. GENERAL PROCEDURES. (a) Each direct recording electronic voting machine must provide the voter with a screen in summary format of the voter’s choices for the voter to review before the vote is actually cast.

(c) The secretary of state shall prescribe any procedures necessary to implement this chapter and to ensure the orderly and proper administration of elections using direct recording electronic voting machines.

How does this work in the real world? Take Travis County for example. Voters during early voting and on election day can vote anywhere in the county. The law was changed so the secretary of state can give counties the ability to have “county-wide” elections. Pierce says because people can vote in whatever county precinct they want,  the hard copy print outs wouldn’t match up. So counties have the flexibility to not have copies of tapes in envelope number 2.

Pierce says the attorney general and the court system has sided with them. So do Travis County officials.

County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir said, “Ms. Pressley is raising the same concerns that she did in Pressley v. Casar, her unsuccessful challenge of her failed race in the 2014 Austin City Council Election. In that case, the trial court after a hearing, entered a ‘No Evidence Summary Judgement’ dismissing the case.”

“The Travis County Clerk remains committed to conducting an election that complies with all applicable laws, and the interpretations of those laws provided by the Secretary of State, in his role as the Chief Elections Officer of the State of Texas. To that end, we believe that all of our procedures, which are developed to assure the integrity of the election, do just that,” said DeBeauvoir in an emailed statement.

Partial Vote Waivers:

But the secretary of state says one thing is changing: the partial manual count. It’s part of the law that requires all 254 Texas Counties to manually count after the election either one percent of their precincts or the ballots of three precincts, whichever is greater.

In the past two major elections, Texas has waived the requirement to manually count part of the totals. That was one of Dr. Pressley’s concerns and this year, the secretary of state will not issue waivers on partial manual vote counts.

“Voters can rest assured that there will be a partial manual count in this November election,” said Pierce.

Future Changes

Travis County is making plans to replace its voting machines with a system that includes a paper backup option. The county clerk wants to move to a system that uses new software and tablet computers. The STAR-Vote System will let voters print a list of their selections.

County Clerk DeBeauvoir told KXAN earlier this year, “But let’s also offer a paper trail so that we can have the audibility and the backup that people want for an electronic voting system.”

The STAR-Vote System will cost county taxpayers around $10 million. It’s supposed to be in place for the 2020 elections.

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