Junkyard Voting Machines: Burnet County Is In A Fix

Updated: Oct 29, 2021

The Big Lie and all the rhetoric about fraudulent voting have put Burnet County Commissioners in a pickle.

You see, our county’s voting machines are worn out and our model no longer supported by the manufacturer, but our commissioners don’t dare replace them in a nationwide political climate where Republican voters are being led to distrust the electoral system.

Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com

Under a dark cloud of lies and fear

From top to bottom, the right has gone all-in on the “stolen election” lie – to the point that any naysayers are booted out of the party. Republicans all agree that voter fraud was rampant in 2020 and cost Trump the election, despite not managing to find any actual proof.

Oh, they tried. Over 60 court cases claiming fraud were brought before judges (many Trump appointees). Every single one was tossed out for lack of evidence.

The spectacle in Arizona is a prime example of the Big Lie running amok. The legislature hired a right-wing outfit called Cyber Ninjas (seriously!) to audit the 2020 Maricopa County election results, despite two previous audits. Comedy immediately ensued as wild theories floated about, such as the infamous “bamboo ballots” – paper that had to be viewed under UV light to reveal bamboo content, “proving” them to be of Asian origin and therefore bogus. (All bamboo comes from Asia, y’know.)

How someone could surreptitiously add 40,000 registered voters’ names to ballots and 40,000 forged signatures to precinct sign-in sheets was never explained. Thankfully, the audit had to be suspended to free the auditorium for high school graduations. We don’t expect it to resume.

It’s not really about fraud

Most of the so-called election integrity measures being proposed have nothing to do with fraud. They are about making it harder for presumed Democrats to vote.

The right has introduced severe restrictions on mail-in voting across the country, but they cannot present any evidence whatsoever that mail-in voting has ever been systematically abused. They conveniently overlook decades of fraud-free elections in states where mail-in voting has been the norm.

The real goal here is to give Republican legislatures the power to override the popular vote – and to put in office election officials willing to help them cheat, as we saw so clearly in Georgia when Brian Kemp was both Secretary of State responsible for conducting the election and the Republican candidate for Governor (a conflict that led to Stacy Abrams’ defeat).

Now that Republicans have convinced themselves they must have been cheated out of the presidency, they figure it’s fair game to openly cheat themselves. Just like fake news came to be any news they didn’t like, fraud has become any outcome they don’t like. You don’t have to catch someone doing it: You just have to believe in only one possible outcome.

Last November, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick posted a million-dollar reward to anyone who discovered voting fraud in the state. He has not had to payout. The Houston Chronicle reports that last year, Attorney General Ken Paxton's office logged “more than 22,000 staff hours” working on voter fraud cases and turned up only a handful of cases (they were address mistakes). They’ve never found a whiff of organized fraud, yet they are certain it exists … somewhere over the rainbow.

Burnet County voting machines ready for the junkyard

For the rest of this discussion of election technology, I am relying on an incisive report prepared for the Burnet County Commissioners by the irrepressible Teri Lum, a local engineer and activist. Her warning is that our current crop of voting machines are ready for the junkyard.

She points out that the Hart eSlate machines we use are beyond end-of-life status with manufacturer Hart InterCivic, which means the company no longer provides parts or service.

The eSlate uses a removable memory card introduced in 1990 and obsolete since 2003. These have a limited life before failing. Some spares have been recovered by stripping junked units, but when this stock runs out, there will be no more.

Lum notes that the user interface of the Hart eSlate is unfamiliar to most voters today. Instead of a touch screen, it’s an awkward, confusing system of knobs and dials.

When the County Commissioners heard from the public on this matter in May, they were generally disinterested and disrespectful to Lum and the other presenters. They obviously had no intention of addressing this problem.

Clearly, these machines need to be replaced, but Republicans are accusing the voting machine companies of rigging their machines against Trump. (Odd to think that Democrats would go to the effort to rig the presidential vote but not the down-ballot races, but Trumpies’ thinking doesn’t need to make sense.)

Putting new voting machines in place now would mean declaring them trustworthy, which would undermine the right’s suppression strategy. Better to let them crater and then blame Biden. So, here in Burnet County, our Commissioners are prowling the junkyard for parts ... and risking our ability to vote at all.

Until a Trump-endorsed company enters the market, they are not going to buy. And don’t be surprised if even Trump-approved voting machines are found to be rigged. After all, they think the Democrats did it once, so why shouldn’t they do it again? As we saw with the proposed Jan. 6 Commission, any attempt to bring in federal regulators will be met with bitter opposition.

So, what are the options for the day when our eSlates finally give out? Lum’s report lists the main technologies available:

  • DREs (direct recording electronic) machines are what we use now. The voter uses knobs and dials, or maybe a touch screen, but no hardcopy of their ballot is produced. These machines are not capable of a meaningful recount, as there’s no paper trail.

  • BMDs (ballot marking devices) are where the voter uses a touchscreen, and the unit produces a paper ballot that’s scanned and archived. The ballots have a unique QR code to prevent them from being scanned more than once.

  • BODs (ballots on demand) systems are where the voter receives a personalized paper ballot to mark in private, which is then scanned and stored for a possible recount. The main barrier to BODs is legislation that prevents their use in county-wide voting centers, apparently an error due to the assumption that everyone would use DREs and BMDs.

Please note that scanner technology has come a long way since it was developed by IBM in the 1940s. Today, ballot readers are highly reliable, able to handle almost all kinds of marking utensils and read all kinds of marks. Ambiguities are noted so they can be resolved. They can also check for overvotes and other user errors. Damaged ballots can be recovered.

Then there’s the fear of hacking

Oddly, most of the right-wing claims of voter fraud revolve around the handling of ballots rather than the hacking of election systems. There are allegations of votes being flipped from one candidate to another, supposedly done by the voting machines themselves due to a virus planted there.

No one seems to be suspicious of the processes of tallying votes or relaying results for consolidation. Machines where flipping allegedly occurred have been dissected and could not be made to repeat the error. The most celebrated cases don’t involve hardware or software at all.

  • In Michigan’s Antrim County, a clerk had applied some totals incorrectly.

  • In North Carolina and Texas, loud complaints of flipping turned out to be correctable voter mistakes. In Texas, the Secretary of State examined Hart eSlates machines and found mostly user errors, along with the inability of the underpowered machine to respond to rapid user actions. This is the same problem that causes straight-ticket voting to produce errors.

A central fear, especially among Trumpies, is that any connection to the Internet leaves machines susceptible to intrusion. In reality, the device runs an operating system that decides who can get in and what they can do. Most all hacks exploit flaws in the operating system, so if the system is secure, so is the machine. (Besides, taking a device off of the Internet deprives system administrators of the best ways to detect tampering.)

Right now, as far as anyone knows, no voting machines are even connected to the Internet, though rumors persist on the right. But if they were online, does that mean they couldn’t be made secure? No, it does not.

Critical applications like bank transfers work securely. Bitcoin exists only online and is an obvious proof of concept. Advanced computing systems can and are being designed to mathematically prove their transactions are secure. This goes beyond reviewing computer code or implementing error-checking procedures to designing intrinsically secure software components. (Neumann and Feiertag, “The foundations of a provably secure operating system (PSOS),” 1979) The idea is to create an isolated environment where the voting application has only the privileges necessary for its task and runs under the secured operating system.

The problem is not so much with the software as the human capacity for error or deception. To plant a virus in an unconnected or properly secured machine requires visiting it in person and swapping out components. For this reason, administrative tasks must be performed only by properly trained, vetted individuals, not by local election techs.

Voter confidence ...?

As noted, Republicans justify the current wave of vote suppression by saying Trump didn’t actually lose the presidential election, and so we must restore the public’s confidence in the system. Otherwise, Americans will rise up to overthrow the next election.

All these solutions in search of a problem are just political theater. Trumpies just need to be convinced they will win, and they don’t care how. That’s how long lines at minority polling places translate into “election integrity.” Virtually none of the dozens of voter suppression laws would have any effect on systematic fraud. Putting restrictions on voting by mail would not daunt organized fraudsters, just burden aged or handicapped voters. Routine safeguards in vote-by-mail states have been working well for decades; the only worry there is mischief by a politicized post office.

Imagine what it would take to sway an election using fake ballots. To run a mail-in ballot fraud, you would need to:

  1. find a few million registered voters you somehow knew would not be voting by mail or showing up at the polls (or create millions of false identities),

  2. forge millions of ballots, complete with signatures matching the ones on file, and

  3. find a way to mail them from the voters’ addresses.

  4. For election day, you would have to hire millions of imposters who look enough like the real voters to pass the photo ID check and match their signatures,

  5. you’d have to pay all these people and ensure they never expose you.

Trumpies seem to think that ballots are just thrown in a big pile to be counted, so someone could add 40,000 bamboo ballots with nobody noticing. They also think a fraudulent ballot can be spotted by a Cyber Ninja auditor just by looking at it. And so they hold recount after recount, expecting results to change.

Holding all these recounts is bound to backfire. After they’ve pored over ballots that have already been counted, recounted and audited, what becomes of the voter confidence they so ardently purport to be protecting? Some minor irregularities may show up, but no deliberate fraud and nothing impacting outcomes. In the case of Arizona, the bungling amateurs have so corrupted the ballots that the state has funded a fourth audit to assess the damage. Even worse, their clumsy fiddling with the voting machines has rendered them unusable. Maricopa County will probably have to buy all new ones.

Of course, in Burnet County, there is nothing to look at. Our votes are taken on the eSlate boxes and relayed to an electronic console, the ballot contents all laid away in electronic storage. At least, that’s how it happens while these machines still work.

Broad support for paper ballots

There is broad support for paper ballots on both sides nationally. According to a poll by UT’s Texas Politics Project, 80% of Americans support paper ballots. The paper ballot is familiar to voters and provides an opportunity for audits the DREs we use now do not.

But which is the better alternative? Most local Democrats are lined up behind BMDs, but Lum and I think BODs are a better choice:

  • A BMD has the user choose candidates on a touch screen and then prints out a record for inspection. After any errors are corrected, it is fed into a scanner that sends off the voter’s selections to be tabulated.

  • With a BOD system, after the voter passes the precinct’s identity check, they receive a paper ballot printed right then at the polling place. The voter fills out the ballot in private and returns it for scanning. This arrangement allows for signed ballots, so there would be no doubt they were certified records of votes. Signatures can be authenticated against those on record – and there are some amazingly accurate AI-based signature-matching systems available.

Most importantly, signed paper ballots signify a commitment to the vote. Hand marking focuses attention on the ballot rather than the equipment, giving voters a greater sense of control and participation. They’ll have no fear that their votes have been undetectably flipped or forged on some machine. Voters will see their hand-marked selections and signatures on the original ballot rather than on a computer-generated facsimile.

Scanning of ballots and tallying of results can be transparent. Allowing the public to view the process will not get great Nielsen ratings, but it might help stave off fusterclucks like they have had in Arizona. The general public could assist in the process with appropriate supervision, training and compensation. More participation would build confidence.

Our County Commissioners will be pleased to know that BODs are less costly than DREs or BMDs. Curtained voting booths replace rows of machines. Some touch-screen units will still be needed for voters who are differently abled, which means two kinds of machines to maintain. Overall, though, the savings from a BOD system should offset costs of any added secure, such as lock boxes and cameras.

This matters. Voting is the glue of democracy.

Some people say voting is for losers. It doesn’t matter who you vote for, they’re still going to do what big donors want. And this was possibly proven in a study by political scientists Martin Gilien and Benjamin I. Page that compared the influence of average citizens, economic elites, mass-based interest groups and business interests on policy outcomes over a 20-year period. They found no correlation between the will of the people and policies implemented.

Voting does not get you what you want. At best, it puts people in office who will use your support to advance other parties’ interests when they align with yours.

But voting is the glue of democracy, as it makes citizens participants in the democratic process: Government by consent of the governed. Voting legitimizes the government to act on behalf of the general welfare. Decisions are supported even by those they go against because everyone benefits in the overall system of law and order. If a fair vote cannot settle the issue, democracy dies.

This is why the Big Lie is so very, very dangerous.

Teri Lum's report can be viewed here.

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