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New McLennan County voting machines under consideration would take old approach

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Vote machines (copy)

McLennan County Elections Administrator Jared Goldsmith assembles voting machines at First Assembly of God Church in preparation for early voting in the 2016 presidential election. The county is looking to buy new voting machines that would produce paper ballots to be marked by hand and read electronically.

New voting machines in McLennan County may take voters back to the future, as they will feature paper ballots that voters will mark by hand.

“We think voters are really going to like it. We’re getting rid of the electronic element, making it easier for voters to learn,” county Elections Administrator Jared Goldsmith said. “We also think this would be better logistically for the county, and should prove easier for poll workers to implement.”

With the new system, a ballot would be printed when a voter checks in. Then, the voter would fill out the ballot and submit it at the polling place.

Price is not a deciding factor, but the machines McLennan County commissioners are considering will save the county hundreds of thousands of dollars compared to other options, Goldsmith said. They will cost $1.5 million to $2 million, while Goldsmith said machines sampled last year would have been closer to $3 million.

McLennan County Judge Scott Felton said the county several years has weighed buying new voting machines. He said commissioners believe the time is right to strike a deal, that money is available in the capital improvement fund, and choosing a provider before the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1 is doable. He said he has received positive feedback since a demonstration the county’s election office hosted Wednesday, attended by election staffers and Republican and Democratic party representatives.

He referred to machines being considered as “dual control,” in that they provide a paper ballot but also supply an electronic footprint.

“When we had paper ballots, we heard complaints from people who said we needed electronic ballots. We went to electronic, and people say we need paper,” Felton said. “Now we will give them both.”

New machines will not be available during the November midterm elections, but Goldsmith said he hopes to unveil them in May.

Commissioner Pat Miller released a statement, saying she would prefer that commissioners take more public comment before choosing a machine.

Miller said she attended the demonstrations hosted by the elections office and saw that both systems tested meet state requirements that all processes produce “an auditable paper trail for all elections after Aug. 31, 2026.”

But she also said in her email that commissioners should solicit input from others attending the preview, and hear an analysis from Goldsmith.

She said via email the county should not rush into spending $2 million to $3 million without weighing all factors, including results of a state-sponsored program evaluating vote-counting machines during November midterms.

McLennan County Democratic Party Chair Mark Hays said he did not attend the demonstration, but heard from someone who did.

“It’s primarily a paper ballot system, with a reader in the polling place,” Hays said. “It sounds like a good system. I have no objections to what was described to me. It sounds like it could work very well.”

Hays said he has questions about the process at what he called the central counting station, which produces the ultimate tally of votes cast. He said the system now in place occasionally confuses him, and he has been an election judge.

Longtime former Democratic Party Chair Mary Duty said the sanctity of the ballot “goes back to the little men and women sitting in those chairs at the polling place. Machines are only as good as the people who program them.”

County Republican Chair Brad Holland could not be reached Friday.

Finalists to provide the machines are Austin-based Hart InterCivic, whose machines the county now uses, and Omaha, Nebraska-based Election Systems and Software. Both offer hybrid voting machines and have been certified by state and federal authorities, Goldsmith said.

Goldsmith said paper ballots should provide a greater level of confidence.

“These are hand-marked ballots. The voter checks in, and a ballot is printed right there in front of them,” Goldsmith said. “If ever there is a recount needed, the hand-marked ballots are there at the ready.”

Goldsmith said the new voting machines should hasten the process, and allow more voters to cast ballots at a polling place at any given time.

“We will set up more privacy booths, not electronic booths,” he said.

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