Politics & Government

Long lines, downed machines, paper jams. Are Tarrant’s voting machines ready for 2020?

Some machines just didn’t seem to work. Others had glitches, such as paper jams when ballots were fed into scanners. In some cases, ballots didn’t print properly. And at least a few visually impaired voters found no audio or private way to cast their ballots.

These were among the problems reported in Tarrant County on Election Day, when more than 85,000 voters cast ballots for the first time on new $11 million election machines.

“We knew there would be some hiccups,” Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley said. “We will step back ... re-evaluate and figure out what we do in preparation for the March primary. And we will try to prevent anything like this from happening” again.

Tarrant County wasn’t the only community in Texas to unveil new election equipment — or to have “teething problems” on the first run of the new machines, said Stephen Chang, a spokesman for the Texas Secretary of State’s Office.

At least five other Texas counties used the same equipment used in Tarrant — Gregg, Hays, Llano, Parker and Wheeler counties — and no major problems were reported, Hart InterCivic officials say.

Throughout the state, other problems were logged, such as in Travis County, where glitches with new machines delayed results until nearly dawn the next day, and Harris County, where some voters were given the wrong ballots.

State election officials are in contact “with local elections officials and administrators to ensure smooth elections as well as the integrity of our electoral process,” Chang said. “We have no doubt that processes will only continue to improve, and we are confident in the security of our systems heading into the 2020 elections.”

In Tarrant County, 3,000 new Hart InterCivic Verity machines — which include a touch screen, paper trail and scanners — replaced the Hart InterCivic eSlate machines that had been used for more than a decade.

“None of the issues that were being discussed Tuesday have to do with the equipment,” said Heider Garcia, Tarrant County’s elections administrator. “They are all related to the human factor.

“I feel very comfortable saying that we are going into the 2020 election in better conditions than we had in 2018 with new equipment, improved security, a paper trail for every voter and more voter accessibility with the implementation of the vote centers program.”

More training

Whitley said county officials wanted to debut the new machines this year, in a non-presidential election year, to work out kinks.

“We will do exactly what we knew we would do from here,” Whitley said. “We will train and train and train” before the 2020 election.

Some voters may be concerned, though, political observers say.

“We are in an era of great mistrust of anything the government does,” said Jim Riddlesperger, a political science professor at TCU. “Any time a new machine is introduced, there are going to be problems with voters adjusting to them, and there are going to be some folks who are immediately suspicious of them.”

There were 129,753 ballots cast in Tarrant County for the Nov. 5 election. That’s 11.42% of the county’s 1.1 million voters. In comparison, 632,587 Tarrant voters — or 55.7% — cast ballots in the Nov. 6, 2018, election.

“Most voters will be using the machines for the first time next year, and that will exacerbate the criticisms,” Riddlesperger said.

Voting problems

Among the problems that arose on Election Day:

Machines not working: At some polling sites, some or all of the voting machines were down. Some election workers, who may not have known how to start them, referred voters to other polling sites. Whitley said there were five locations he knew of where voting machines weren’t set up until someone from the county elections office came out because some poll workers weren’t comfortable with the process.

Layne Craig, a 39-year-old who has voted in Fort Worth elections since 2012, tried to vote at Daggett Elementary after taking her child to school. As she stood in line, she was told no one had been able to vote because the machines weren’t working. So she headed to the Southside Church of Christ, where she got in line to vote.

At the time, only one machine was working there — and it apparently printed a ballot that showed votes cast by a previous voter, not the one voting then. Election workers fixed the problem and Craig said she was able to vote at that location within about 20 minutes.

“Going in to next year, it’s concerning that the machines aren’t providing an efficient voting experience,” she said, adding that long waits could affect the ability of working parents to vote. “I’m concerned. Everything needs to be a lot more efficient.”

Long lines: There were long lines at some polling sites on Election Day and officials ended up adding more machines to some locations such as Keller Town Hall, the JPS Health Center Viola Pitts/Como center and the sub-courthouses in Arlington and Mansfield.

Matthew Strong, a 47-year-old Keller voter, was vocal on social media Tuesday about machines being down at Keller Town Hall and how some voters left because they had to get to work. “This is a joke,” he wrote. “Nice new voting process for Tarrant County.”

He and others say they hope election officials next year will begin with more voting machines at busy polling sites, particularly Keller Town Hall. “I have confidence in the machines,” he said. “I have (less) confidence in the decision making of where these machines are going to be placed on Election Day.”

Poll workers: More than 1,600 poll workers received election training, Whitley said. But some, particularly those who had been accustomed to just handing paper ballots to voters in the past, were not confident about operating the electronic systems.

Whitley also said a number of poll workers suddenly quit the Saturday before the election, likely because they weren’t comfortable with the new equipment.

Paper jams: Some voters said they had problems trying to insert their paper ballot into the machine to formally cast their ballot. Some poll workers suggested the humidity on Tuesday could have caused the jams.

“The most common issue we saw on Election Day was the paper jam,” Garcia said, noting that there were 94 reports of jams among the more than 88,000 ballots cast. “No defects in the machines have been confirmed. Mostly it seems it was first-time encounter of the voters with the equipment.”

Lack of audio for visually impaired voters. In at least two cases, there was no audio available to give instructions to visually impaired voters. One voter said there were no headphones connected at a polling site and someone had to read the ballot to him. Another voter said there were headphones, but no audio played. Both of those voters had to be helped by others to cast their ballot. One filed a complaint with the county because she wasn’t able to vote privately or independently. Garcia said ADA devices and headphones were provided to polling sites, “which leads us to believe it was a poll worker error.”

Moving forward

Hart InterCivic officials say they don’t believe the bulk of the problems are tied to the actual voting machines at all.

“There were no systemic issues in Tarrant County or anywhere else they were used,” said Steven Sockwell, vice president of marketing for the Austin-based company. “There were growing pain issues.

“We will continue to do everything we can to support the county.”

The problems that arose Tuesday can easily be overcome by next year’s primary election, said Dan Wallach, a computer science professor at Rice University who studies election systems.

“I don’t know how much turnover there is with poll workers, but they’ll get more training and more experience which will make things go more smoothly next time around,” he said. “The paper trail significantly improves their security, and the whole voting system has been subjected to newer voting system standards that have a variety of improvements over the earlier requirements.”

Whitley said there’s nothing wrong with the county’s new machines.

“We need to do more training and make sure people feel confident in doing what they need to do,” he said.

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Anna M. Tinsley grew up in a journalism family and has been a reporter for the Star-Telegram since 2001. She has covered the Texas Legislature and politics for more than two decades and has won multiple awards for political reporting, most recently a third place from APME for deadline writing. She is a Baylor University graduate.