Too Many Voters, or Too Few? We'll Know by March!
Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir works with the Texas Secretary of State to troubleshoot the “fleeing voter” problem
Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir told the Chronicle that she's pleased with the overall result of the first county election using its new electronic voting systems – but remains concerned about the delay in the final count. In recent years, final results have generally been available by 10pm, sometimes earlier, but for the Nov. 5 election, the final tallies were not announced until nearly 4am on Nov. 6.
DeBeauvoir attributes the delay to two factors: more last-minute voting on Election Day, and a state law triggering a "re-scan" of all the ballots at a location if there are even minimal discrepancies. "It's a 20th-century law applied to a 21st century system," the clerk told reporters the day following the election. "It doesn't really work with this new system."
The new system requires voters to mark choices on an electronic monitor, which then issues a paper ballot for them to verify and then deposit in a separate scanning machine. A few signed-in voters at some locations didn't complete all these tasks. Under a literal reading of state law, more than three "fleeing voters" (that's the actual term used) at a polling place mandates a re-scan of that poll's ballots; the clerk's election staff re-scanned ballots from 15 locations, where a range of four to 14 "missing" ballots (108 in all, out of 122,235 votes cast) were noted. The law was enacted in the Nineties for hand-marked, optically scanned ballots, which were more prone to both human and machine errors. "We do want to make sure that we've not missed any ballots," DeBeauvoir said. "But re-scanning an entire box, under this new system, is wildly unlikely to give us a different answer."
DeBeauvoir added that the delay in the recent count was exacerbated by the fact that many voters waited until the last hours of Election Day to get to the polls, with many remaining in line to vote at closing time, 7pm. "That meant people were still voting at 9:30pm," she said, "and we didn't get the boxes from those locations until an hour or two later." She's concerned that late tallies suggest there's something wrong with the count and hopes for a solution before the March primaries, when far greater numbers of voters are expected. "We can't let these problems hurt public confidence in the vote for no good reason." DeBeauvoir says she's working with the Texas Secretary of State's Office on solutions, which could include either a temporary waiver or reinterpretation of the law to avoid the re-scannings. (Reportedly, some other jurisdictions handled fleeing voters by waiting until official canvassing – a day or two later – to re-scan problem boxes, rather than doing so on election night. The Secretary of State's Office did not respond to requests for comment.)
As for late arrivals at the polls, the clerk says she's hoping a more aggressive education campaign will encourage people not to procrastinate. "People love the paper ballot, and the paper trail," she said. "But it is a new system, and voters will need to learn the process."