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Federal funds to help counties update voting equipment

Helping Texans Vote

Voters in Hays County have used traditional punch-card voting machines since the mid-1970s. But by the 2004 presidential election, they may cast their ballot via a computerized or electronic system, thanks to expected federal funding.

The Help America Vote Act of 2002, House Resolution (H.R.) 3295, signed into law by President George W. Bush in October 2002, provides states $3.9 billion in federal funds from 2003 through 2006. States can use the funds to replace outdated voting machines, improve voter education and train precinct workers.

Under Title I of the law, each state can receive a minimum of $5 million in federal funding. The first round of Title I funds, $325 million, will pay for replacing punch-card and lever voting machines with modern voting systems. For each precinct that uses punch-card or lever systems, states can receive a maximum of $4,000 to upgrade. A second set of funding, another $325 million, will help states improve election administration.

Title II of H.R. 3295 establishes an Election Assistance Commission, a federal commission with two Republican and two Democratic appointees. The commission will issue voluntary guidelines for voting systems, address certification and testing of voting systems and study election issues.

Under Title II, $3 billion in federal funds will go to states to help them meet H.R. 3295 requirements, which include providing provisional ballots, implementing a uniform, computerized statewide voter registration list and providing voting machines for voters with disabilities. States also will use the funds to train poll workers, provide voter education and improve federal election administration.

As of December 2002, the commission had not been appointed, no federal funds had been released and there was no timeline for distributing funds to states.

The law requires each state to submit a plan to the Election Assistance Commission describing how it will meet the law's requirements. Ann McGeehan, director of elections for the Texas Secretary of State's Office (SOS), says the SOS must form a task force and work with election officials and voter advocates from the state's two most populous counties, Harris and Dallas, to develop Texas' plan.

The SOS will help form the task force and develop the state plan, although election officials are waiting to see how active the 2003 Legislature will be in interpreting the plan, McGeehan says.

"It's a very substantive election bill," McGeehan says. "We're just now looking really carefully at the bill and trying to figure it out."

Clock ticking
Even though the Election Assistance Commission has not been formed and no funds have been released, the law requires states to meet certain deadlines.

States have until April 29, 2003, to provide the commission with an estimate of how much funding they need to replace punch-card and lever voting machines. During the 2000 presidential elections, 14 Texas counties used punch-cards and three used lever voting systems, McGeehan says.

Each state also must file its plan with the commission by September 2003, even if the state does not wish to apply for the federal funding.

"What's paramount is that no federal funds have been authorized yet, even though the clock is ticking, and we're supposed to start filing things here in pretty short session," McGeehan says.

Ahead of the curve
Texas has already met some H.R. 3295 requirements.

"The voting system standards that are imposed by this federal law are pretty much the Texas standards today," McGeehan says.

For example, Texas already requires its voting systems to produce a paper audit trail, and all systems adopted after September 1999 must be accessible to voters with disabilities--both requirements of H.R. 3295.

In a 2000 e-Texas report, the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts recommended expanding the authority of the SOS to standardize ballots and investigate electronic voting options.

Several Texas counties use electronic voting systems, including Direct Recording Electronic Devices (DREs). DREs display candidate names on a monitor, and voters select candidates via a touch screen, push buttons or similar devices.

Travis County used a DRE system, the eSlate Electronic Voting System, for early voting for the November 2002 elections, and on Election Day the county used an optical scanner voting system. With an optical scanner system, voters use pencils to fill in an oval or space next to their candidate's name on a ballot, and a scanner reads and tabulates votes.

"It went superb," says Libby Sykora, executive assistant to Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir, of the eSlate system. "We didn't have any problems."

Travis County will spend $5 million on the eSlate system in fiscal 2003 and 2004. The cost covers voting equipment and support services from Austin-based system supplier Hart InterCivic, as well as an extensive voter outreach and education campaign. Travis County will use only the eSlate system for the Austin mayoral election in May 2003, Sykora says.

Travis County election officials say the eSlate system should speed up vote counting on election nights. With traditional optical scan ballots, Travis County election officials use 12 vote tabulators, each of which is larger than a refrigerator. They must be moved from storage to centralized counting areas during elections.

"Hopefully, we'll see faster results, because at the end of the night we can just modem in the results from the precinct directly into the counting station," Sykora says. "It's always 1:30 at night or so when we get through. This should be a much faster response for media and candidates."

With eSlate, a voter uses a rotary wheel to navigate through the ballot and select his or her vote. Travis County election officials say the system is more accurate and durable than touch-screen voting systems and less expensive to store and maintain.

"Most of the people said [voting] was fun," Sykora says. "I don't think anyone has told us voting was fun in a long time."

Harris County used the eSlate system for its November 2002 elections and used an optical scan ballot for mail-in voting.

"We believe it worked better because it prevented voter errors, such as over-voting in some races, and provided a review screen for voters to check their choices before finally casting the ballot," says Harris County Clerk Beverly Kaufman. "And it was particularly helpful for the disabled."

Kaufman says that eSlate did not save officials time because of the challenge of using a new system. The county finished counting votes about 2 a.m. on election night, which has been the average the past few years.

"We expect it to speed up in future elections with experience on our part and that of the election judges," Kaufman says.

Harris County spent $25.1 million on the system, which included voting machines, voting booths, software, support, training and outreach. Under H.R. 3295, Harris County could retroactively qualify for federal funds and might be able to recoup some or part of what it has already spent, Kaufman says.

Kaufman will serve on the SOS task force and will work with Paul Bettencourt, Harris County's voter registrar and tax assessor-collector, on local control of records.

Joyce Cowan, elections administrator for Hays County, says she would welcome federal funding to upgrade voting machines but wants to see what requirements will be tied to the funding and how various new systems work in other counties.

"I've presented to the commissioners court that we will need to buy," Cowan says. "In addition to looking at the various equipment being offered, we are interested in the reactions of the public or if any problems occurred during the November 2002 election."

Cowan estimates it would cost between $500,000 and $1 million to replace the punch-card voting systems at Hays County's 33 precincts with DREs or optical scanners.

Provisional voting
H.R. 3295 also requires states to provide provisional ballots to voters whose registration is challenged to ensure that no individual is turned away at the polls. A provisional ballot would be kept separately, and after the election, if the voter's registration and eligibility were verified, the vote would be counted.

Texas already has a challenge affidavit process similar to provisional voting, McGeehan says. If a voter's registration is questioned, and the voter swears he or she is registered to vote, the person may vote. If officials later find the voter is ineligible, a court can remove the vote from the official count.

How provisional voting will be implemented in Texas may be an issue for the 2003 Legislature to explore, McGeehan says. In the meantime, state election officials will begin to develop a plan for meeting the federal requirements.

"I think we'll be working very hard on it for the next few months," McGeehan says.

Karen Hudgins

Help America Vote Act

The Help America Vote Act of 2002, H.R. 3295, signed into law by President George W. Bush in October 2002, provides $3.9 billion in federal funds to states from 2003 through 2006 to replace outdated voting machines, improve voter education and train precinct workers.

Under the law, states must:

  • implement a uniform, centralized statewide voter registration computer database;
  • provide provisional ballots to ensure no individual is turned away at the polls; and
  • provide at least one voting machine that is accessible to the disabled per precinct.