When voters in Harris County went to the polls last week, they used machines that hadn’t been upgraded in almost 20 years.
The county is currently the largest in the country to use electronic machines that don't create a paper record for ballots. And the county has spent more than a year looking for a replacement.
Back in July of 2019, then-Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman spoke to a trade show put on by the voting equipment industry. Trautman told them that while Harris County had budgeted $74 million to upgrade its voting machines, it would take until July of this year before it could select a vendor, and even then, the new machines wouldn't be ready until after the 2020 election.
“Just to make 5,000 machines will take months," Trautman said. "So, to get them back, put them in the field, teach the election workers and the voters how to use them, you are looking at, our estimate is the May 2021 election before they can be used.”
Those plans were on track right up until March, when the first cases of coronavirus appeared in Greater Houston.
"COVID obviously threw all of the county's election plans for a loop," said Dan Wallach, an expert on voting security in Rice University's computer science department. He said that Trautman's resignation in the face of the pandemic, for health reasons, set the process back. "Chris Hollins, her replacement, had a lot on his plate besides dealing with new voting machines. He had to deal with radically increasing the size of our vote-by-mail infrastructure, creating drive-through voting."
Hollins took office with the intent of serving only until his replacement could be elected. He steps down next week, as Teneshia Hudspeth is sworn in as the new county clerk, and as a new appointed administrator, Isabel Longoria, will take up managing the county's elections and voter registration.
So where do things stand with the selection of a new voting machine system?
"One of my final actions in office will be sending a recommendation over to our county attorney's office, which around the time of December or so will make it to Commissioners Court for a vote," Hollins told Houston Matters.
He told host Craig Cohen that he hadn't made his selection yet, but that he'll be making a recommendation this week.
"We will be taking on a paper-based system," Hollins said. "You'll use a touchscreen, sort of like an iPad, to make your selection, and then that will be printed out on a sheet of paper that will be put into a machine, and so we will be able to, in a paper-based manner, go back and audit every single election if there are ever any questions."
Hollins said poll workers will have to be trained on the use of the new machines, but for voters, he doesn't expect any problems.
"Regardless of the machine that we choose, I imagine that it will be more intuitive for voters than what we currently have, and I think Harris County residents will pick up quickly," he said.
And Hollins said the machines will all be in place and ready to use by the May 2021 municipal elections, as originally scheduled.