Harris County election officials are working to ensure a much smoother election night than the county saw in March, but they're warning not to expect results until early the morning after Election Day.
"What we focus on is accuracy over speed," said Harris County Elections Administrator Clifford Tatum.
March marked the first time many voters used the county's new Hart InterCivic Verity Duo voting machines. The result was large numbers of paper jams as voters attempted to feed their ballots into the machines. That and other factors drew out the reporting process by more than 24 hours. The resulting furor led to the resignation of Tatum’s predecessor, Isabel Longoria.
Tatum said his office has taken steps to fix the technical problems that led to so many paper jams. "We've actually added, with the help of the vendor, we've added what we describe as a paper guide onto the Duo machine, which will assist the voter in feeding the paper into the machine properly, so that we don't see paper jams," Tatum said. " The guide reduces the risk of jams by preventing the voter from feeding more than one page of a ballot into the machine at a time.
Tatum said his office is increasing the number of voting machines at some locations in order to reduce waiting times. But he's also encouraging voters to print out sample ballots from the HarrisVotes website and mark them up with their selections, in order to minimize the amount of time they need to vote and keep the lines at polling locations moving.
"At a minimum, we're seeing that it's going to take a voter at least five minutes to cast a ballot. And that means that they're working through every page, every screen on the Duo (voting machine) as they're going through the process. That doesn't mean that they have to make a selection for every contest – we encourage them to do so – but they have to work through every page to get to the end of the ballot," Tatum said.
Election officials said Harris County's ballot this fall will be the largest in the state, if not the entire country.
HOW THE BALLOTS WILL BE COUNTED
The Election Administrator's Office has set up its Central Count location in Hall D of NRG Arena, in order to accommodate operations for an election the size of the midterms.
Polls officially close at 7 p.m. on Election Day. "The PJs, the presiding judges won't actually close the polling locations until the last voter in line actually casts a ballot," Tatum said. "Once that happens, we project that the election judge will take about one hour to close down the polling location, including completing all the paperwork and processing the machines to bring those items here to NRG."
Tatum said the first judges should start arriving at NRG Arena with their secured polling equipment and other materials around 8:30 p.m. on Election Night.
Outside NRG Arena, the office will have 45 tents set up with 15 lanes. A judge will drive up and be greeted by a team of clerks who will verify the judge's identity. The clerks will verify that the judge has brought back the ballot box and ballot bag, the Scan machine, the ePollbook case, and the judge's box. Once all the equipment is scanned in by bar code, it will be loaded onto a cart and transported inside the arena to various processing stations.
"We do want to make sure that they're bringing all of this equipment back, because all of these places are somewhere where there could be a ballot," said D.J. Ybarra, deputy director for voter registration outreach at the Elections Administrator's Office. "So, we're going to make sure that, as we're processing it, we're going to drop each one off at a specific station, and they're going to open it up, make sure that there's no ballots kind of hiding anywhere."
The bulk of the votes are stored in digital form on the Scan machine's V Drive. Each Scan will be carted to a receiving station, where a clerk will ensure the V Drive is secure and has not been tampered with.
"This process begins by the clerk breaking the seal (on the Scan), retrieving the chain of custody documents that are inside the seal. We record that information onto several forms, and then after the clerk verifies that that information is actually correct and transferred to the paperwork, we will then send a package over to what we call the certification area, for the ballot tabulation process to actually begin," Tatum said.
This process will need to be repeated nearly 800 times in order to process all the votes cast during early voting and on Election Day, with each V Drive taking about a minute to upload its contents to the server in the Central Count area.
Central Count is the heart of the Harris County elections operations, and as deputy director of election technology Jason Bruce explained, it is designed to be secure from any physical or electronic tampering.
"Central Count is badge access only, verified by our Central Count admin team," Bruce said. "This ensures that all personnel have met the (Secretary of State's) guidelines for entry. A sheriff's deputy or constable will place themselves right outside Central Count...to ensure that anyone that is entering Central Count has the correct badge that has been assigned. Also no electronics, cell phones, tablets will be allowed in Central Count for tabulation. Central Count tabulation and scanning equipment is air gapped, no external network connections."
Ensuring a safe, secure, and accurate count takes time. Clifford Tatum estimates that, if everything goes smoothly, it will take about six hours on election night to get a complete preliminary count of all the ballots cast.
"So, if the first results arrive here at NRG, let's say roughly 8:30 (p.m.), then we really start that six-hour count at 8:30-9:00. Which means that, just based on the math alone, the earliest that we could possibly tabulate all of the votes in a preliminary fashion would be 2 a.m. to 2:30 in the morning (on Wednesday, November 9)," Tatum said.
That's bound to be frustrating for some people, particularly when it comes to those monitoring close races. "We certainly understand that voters want to see results as soon as possible after the polls close," Tatum said. "So, part of the process there is to publish the results on an hourly basis...We will release the first results at 7 p.m. on election night, and that will be the early voting results and the ballot by mail results."