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Texas House District 48 Recount Shines Light on Election Problems

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Most of the time the democratic process has a certain amount of elasticity created by relatively large margins of victory which allows small mistakes and irregularities to be overlooked as not really making a difference in the outcome of an election. But when a vote is extremely close, problems which might normally be tolerated can become critical factors in disenfranchising voters. In a democracy there is no greater civil crime than rendering an individual’s vote meaningless.

This effect has been demonstrated graphically in the developments in the race for Texas State House of Representatives District 48. In the initial vote incumbent Democrat Donna Howard won by a margin of only 16 votes against Republican challenger Dan Neil in a race with over 50,000 votes cast. That small margin of victory led to a recount and it has placed in sharp focus all of the shortcomings of the voting system in Travis County.

With a 16 vote margin every vote has to be counted correctly and every consideration has to be given to protecting the right of voters to have their say in the election. One way of assuring that is a recount, and that’s what Dan Neil’s campaign initiated this week. That recount has become like turning over a big rock to see all the unpleasant things that live in the darkness beneath it, and what it has revealed about voting in Travis County is not pretty.

The problems start with the attitude in the County Clerk’s office, where the same Democratic incumbent has held office for 20 years with little challenge to her authority. She and her staff have become jaded and allowed partisanship to rule their actions. The total lack of accountability or oversight has made them arrogant and complacent and encouraged them to run elections in a way which leaves many openings for abuse and mismanagement.

The regular election voting system in Travis County is deeply flawed. The eSlate voting machines do not track votes or link them to voters in any way and there is no way to verify anything about those votes beyond just carrying out another automated count. Almost any kind of voting fraud is impossible to identify or investigate once it has gotten beyond the precinct level. Everything is reduced to numbers which can never be sourced or researched once they have been processed into the system. Voters have no guarantee that their votes have even been counted beyond their initial encounter with the voting machine. The system offers no transparency and no verification or protections for the rights of the voter.

This system inherently limits the effectivenes of any recount as most of the votes can never be reexamined in any meaningful way. They’re just numbers on a card with no connection to anything in the real world – easy to manipulate and impossible to track. All you can really do is check those few votes which are made in paper form, mostly absentee ballots filed by people living overseas and the elderly or disabled, of course including a great many military ballots.

In advance of the recount in House District 48 a determination had been made to take many of the absentee ballots and rule them ineligible to vote in the election based on various criteria. Recount judges were then provided with a “remade” ballot which did not reflect the original intent of the voter, but instead had been created to replace the original absentee ballots and include only the races in which it had been determined that the voter was eligible.

The operating rule in eliminating these ballots was that anyone who had filled out a rather ambiguous federal form and not indicated a specific duration for their travel was considered a non-resident and eligible to vote only in federal level races. So even if you owned property or had a permanent address in the district you were kept from voting in any state or local races if you indicated that you were unsure of how long you would be outside the area – for example if you were in the military with no idea how long your deployment would last.

The problem with this system is that it ignored the intent of the voter arbitrarily and made assumptions about their residency status which may not have been accurate. Clearly the voters had addresses in the district because their ballots were sorted by precinct. Many of those absentee ballots had clearly marked votes in state and local races, showing the voter’s clear intent to remain part of that political community and not to expatriate themselves. In ruling the way they did the election officials in Travis County essentially took away their rights as citizens and certainly disenfranchised them in terms of this election. What’s more, none of the materials on which the decisions to exclude voters were based were made available to judges or poll watchers.

When the recount ended the results showed Neil still losing by 12 votes, largely the result of clerical errors in the original count. But what also became very clear is that hundreds of ballots were disqualified on the basis of a very questionable interpretation of the law and in clear negation of the intent and rights of the voters, including many members of the military deployed overseas. Whether this changed the outcome of the election is debatable, but it was certainly unfair to the voters.

The non-partisan election reform group Austin Vote Action summmed up many of the problems in this election well, pointing out that “Travis County elections are run with a disregard for the rights and best interests of voters and the community…As the Clerk’s Office currently runs elections there is too little transparency and too many opportunities for abuse. Austin voters deserve better.”

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About Marc Tully

  • Boris B.

    It is obvious from their actions that leftist have no qualms about committing voter fraud anytime it serves their agenda.

    Pathetic bunch as proven by their actions.

  • El Bicho

    Of course, the right never does that, Boris.

  • Doug Hunter

    When these voting machines first made the news I said that they needed to print a receipt ticket for your votes that had coded information you could check against the final record to ensure your vote counted properly either in an online database or published in the newspaper in smaller races. It doesn’t take rocket science to figure out how to do this.

  • http://www.republicofdave.com Dave Nalle

    It’s worse than that, Doug. I did some research on the eSlate machines and you can take one apart with a pocket knife in about 30 seconds and then if you know the circuitry you can jump two leads on the circuit board and change all the votes to straight ticket votes for one party or the other.

  • Hungry

    When a democrat challenges an election result, republicans bemoan how crooked liberal lawyers are trying to steal the election. When it is the reverse, not so much. But it is the democrats playing politics. Whatever.

    Unfortunately, you are demonstrating you lack of knowledge of how the voting machines work and of the election laws. Your points about how votes are counted and what oversea ballots are eligible are grossly inaccurate.

  • http://www.republicofdave.com Dave Nalle

    Ok, Hungry, fill us in on the election laws and how the machines work. Share your knowledge.

    Dave

  • http://votingnews.blogspot.com Joyce McCloy

    Most states are returning to voter marked paper ballots, scanned by optical scanners. Optical scan systems cost less to purchase and the net annual expenditures are lower.

    States adopting paper ballots are also implementing post election audits. These audits check the digital count against the voter marked paper ballot.

    Getting a receipt for voting is problematical because it opens up the voter to coercion. Believe it or not there are overbearing employers, spouses and family members who would seek to influence some people’s votes, and a receipt would enable that.

    The reason we have voting booths is to ensure a secret ballot by giving voters a private place to cast their ballot without coercion.

    A study of undervotes in North Carolina’s 2008 election showed that your vote was more likely to be counted if you cast it on voter marked paper ballot than on touchscreens. Here’s the data.

  • BenThere and Tested That

    @Dave Nally – 30 seconds – turning seven screws, some of which are covered with a tamper evident seal? Sure. …and which two leads of a microprocessor board can be shorted to change voting logic? When will you cease to mislead this blog’s readers?

    …and you want to give voters receipts? so they can sell their votes as happens in other countries? No thanks. Keep it under glass.

  • Hungry

    Th ballots is qeustion are not from military personnel, or from overseas students, or Peace Corps volunteers, or anything like that. They are from American citizens that live overseas, pay taxes overseas, and do not even legally reside in Texas let alone district 48.

    Military ballots are a different category entirely and every single one was counted. Dan Neil himself misspoke on this point and has since corrected himself. It is not about military ballots. No, no, no.

    Th eslate machines are tamper proof an power down immediately when opened. Also, a polling place is by law not allowed to open if there is any evidence of a damaged machine. There are detail transaction audit trails for each device. There is no way change one with it being traced. Also the information is stored redundantly and has so match.

    Alos, what you suggest is ridiculous. You say I am going to go into a polling location and start taking a apart a machine with no one (including the armed guard) noticing? And then reprogram micro electronic circuit boards with my bare hands? And then put it all back together and casually walk out?

  • Hungry

    And reports are most of the ineligible voters in question voted for Howard anyway. It was a tight race, Mr Neil, but it is time to step away.