Election 2016

The Mechanics Of Voting In Harris County

The county’s election system has multiple safeguards, designed to deal with threats ranging from software glitches to fire. Tomorrow, it’s all put to the test.

Greater Houston shattered turnout records for early voting. More than a million people cast ballots for the presidential election over the past two weeks. But another half million are expected to show up on Election Day. How prepared are officials to handle the surge? And with all the talk of a rigged election, what are the safeguards?

Harris County’s Election Technology Center sits just off the Northwest Freeway in Spring Branch. The warehouse takes up more space than a football field. Inside, two dozen workers pack up voting machines and load them onto trucks.

Houston Public Media's Coverage of Election 2016

Houston Public Media's Coverage of Election 2016

“We go through and test every ballot code, every race, every contestant, and test to verify that if it’s voted here, that it’s tabulated over here on the software that we use for tabulation,” says Bryan Schouten, director of the center.

Schouten is gesturing from the electronic voting machines to the Judge’s Booth Controllers (JBCs). The voter casts a ballot on an eSlate machine – or a Disabled Access Unit, in the case of the visually or mobility impaired. A cable connects the voting machines to the JBC, which records the vote on an encrypted electronic card.

“There’s 5,904 eSlates going out, 1,606 Disabled Access Units going out, and a total of 1,530 JBCs for Election Day,” he says.

That’s nearly six times as much equipment as the warehouse shipped out for early voting. Every piece must be tested twice before it goes. Workers need to make sure none have been tampered with. They also have to catch any problems that could cause a machine to break down.

“We’re less than 1 percent failure rate on Election Day,” Schouten says.

The warehouse stocks an extra 100 machines to be shipped out in case of emergencies. And it takes other precautions to protect the equipment from damage. Schouten rolls up a heavy, fireproof barrier on one side of the warehouse.

“We keep half the equipment in this room,” he says, pointing inside, “with a four-hour firewall and door to protect the equipment in case of a disaster.”

In August 2010, less than eight weeks before the start of early voting, Harris County’s previous warehouse burned to the ground, destroying nearly all of the electronic voting machines. The new facility opened just in time for the 2012 election.

“The old site was a fraction of this size,” Schouten says.” We used to have to move stuff to move stuff to move stuff. And now it’s much nicer, more open, more room to be able to move around.”

For all the high-tech equipment and modern facilities, it’s the human element that determines whether the county’s election system functions smoothly. That includes not just the warehouse workers, but also the truck drivers who deliver the machines to the polling stations. And it includes the judges and poll workers at each site.

“The folks that that administrate the elections at the voting precinct level are designated by the political parties,” says Hector de Leon, a spokesman for the Harris County Clerk’s Office. “They will designate what is called a presiding judge and an alternate judge for each voting location. One represents one party and the other represents the other party.”

Before the polls open, the judges make one last check to make sure there are no votes preloaded on machines. When the polls close, the judges carry the JBCs with the vote totals to one of four drop-off locations around Harris County. The totals are entered onto a computer on the county’s secure network. It takes a few days to formally confirm the vote totals. Meanwhile, the equipment all goes back to the warehouse.

“It takes two weeks to get Election Day back in our office,” Bryan Schouten says. “Then it takes another couple of weeks for us to back up the equipment, ’cause we back up all the JBCs for a permanent record.”

In case of a close election, that record is available for a recount. The machines themselves go back into storage, so they’ll be ready to use next year.

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Andrew Schneider

Andrew Schneider

Politics and Government Reporter

Andrew heads Houston Public Media’s coverage of national, state, and local elections. He also reports on major policy issues before the Texas delegations in the U.S. House and Senate, as well as the Texas governorship, the state legislature, and county and city governments. Before taking up his current post, Andrew...

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