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How Texas counts ballots and keeps elections secure

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Elections are critical to our democracy and the political process, but they require lots of preparation and coordination.

So how do officials ensure the integrity of elections? From election equipment to ballot counting and storage, Texas elections officials follow a long list of laws and procedures to ensure free and fair elections. They are also working increasingly long hours to respond to questions and concerns from members of the public.

“I take that very personally, because it’s a reflection on me and my office, and I just am very serious about what I do,” said Trudy Hancock, the Brazos County elections administrator and president of the Texas Association of Elections Administrators.

Here’s more about your ballot’s journey through the election process and Texas’ election safeguards.

How are voting equipment and polling places secured?

The U.S. Election Assistance Commission certifies all voting systems and software. The Texas secretary of state also reviews and approves voting systems. Only two are approved for use in the state.

Approved voting machines, including tabulators, cannot have the capability to connect to the internet — a protection against hacking. Only devices known as poll books — used to check voter registrations during the check-in process at polling locations and which are also certified by the secretary of state — can connect to the internet to ensure a person does not vote twice.

Texas voting machines also go through multiple tests. They are tested twice before each election, including during a test open to the public, and the source code of the software is verified. Another test of voting machines is conducted immediately after elections.

Before a polling location opens for the first day of early voting and Election Day, the election judge or officer overseeing the polling location must document that the voting machines have not counted any voters or votes and inspect machines for possible tampering, according to the secretary of state’s office. Election judges must also check and log the serial numbers of each machine.

After the polls close each day, election judges must ensure the number of counted ballots matches the number of people who showed up to vote. Voting machines are then shut down and locked to prevent any other votes from being cast.

When a polling location closes on Election Day, election officers must print at least three copies of the election results from each machine.

What happens after I cast my ballot?

In many counties, including some of the state’s largest, voters casting a ballot in person will make their selections on a touchscreen, then feed a printout of their completed ballot into a ballot-scanning machine that reads the votes before dropping the ballot into an attached locked box.

In about 25 to 30 counties, votes are directly recorded by voting machines when voters make their selections, according to the secretary of state’s office.

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In most major counties, thumb drives containing the vote information and the locked ballot boxes are eventually delivered to a central vote-counting station to be counted. In counties where votes are counted at a polling place, the ballots and records may be delivered to the county clerk or elections administrator, according to the state’s manual for poll workers.

Mail-in ballots received early can be processed ahead of election night. This means election workers can open and review the envelopes containing completed ballots to verify that voters have provided all necessary information, including the newly required ID number that must match a voter’s registration records. But vote counting cannot begin until the end of early voting for large counties or until the morning of Election Day for smaller counties.

Officials must document a comparison of the number of voters who cast a ballot and the number of counted ballots to be posted on county websites. On election night, central counting station officials can decide to open a locked ballot box and count ballots by hand if there is an issue or discrepancy, said Heider Garcia, the Tarrant County elections administrator.

Under federal law, ballots have to be securely stored for at least 22 months after an election. After the 22-month period, ballots can be discarded, but many counties choose to keep them or preserve them electronically to enhance transparency in the event that voters or members of the public want to later review them, according to the secretary of state’s office.

Can I track my ballot?

Voters can check with their county election officials to see whether their vote was counted. Find yours here.

Counties must electronically report voter history — whether a voter participated in an election — to the secretary of state within 30 days of the election. Some, such as Tarrant County, also make this information readily available on their websites.

“In ours, you can type in your name, last name, date of birth, and you’ll see your whole voter history, and as soon as we have it shows there,” Garcia said.

This information may be available on county elections websites when you look up your voter registration or on posted election rosters of the people who have voted. You can also find records of who has voted on the secretary of state’s website by downloading a “voter details report” on the pages for election turnout. Who a person voted for is not public record.

If you voted through a provisional ballot because of an administrative issue or photo ID problem, you should receive a notice by mail letting you know if your ballot was counted by the 10th day after the local tally of votes is finalized. For the Nov. 8 election, these notices must be mailed by Dec. 2, according to the state’s election law calendar.

Voters who vote by mail can use an online tracker to check the status of their mail-in ballot. In some cases, the tracker can also be used to make corrections. You can access the tracker here. The deadline to correct mail-in ballots is Nov. 14.

How are votes counted in Texas elections?

Counties are required to count results from each polling location within 24 hours of the polls closing on Election Day, according to the secretary of state’s office.

By election night, most counties have early voting results tabulated and will post them shortly after polls close at 7 p.m. local time, Secretary of State John Scott said in a recent informational video explaining the vote counting process. This includes mail-in ballots turned in early.

As votes from Election Day and more mail-in ballots are tabulated, those are added in increments to the tally, which is then updated on county websites and the secretary of state’s results page for state, district and federal elections. This may take some time as polling places are closed down and election materials are transported back to county election officials. Additionally, eligible voters in line by 7 p.m. on Election Day must be given the opportunity to cast their ballot.

If there are any discrepancies between what is posted on a county and the state’s websites, the secretary of state’s office checks with local officials entering the data to ensure the correct information is included before unofficial election night results are finalized, Scott said in the informational video.

The election night results are unofficial because counties still have to account for late-arriving mail-in ballots, ballots from military or overseas voters and provisional ballots, which must be verified and counted by Nov. 21, according to the election law calendar.

Once all eligible ballots have been counted, the county commissioners court can conduct the local canvass by reviewing records and finalizing the tally of votes. This must be completed by Nov. 22.

A statewide canvass, in which the governor certifies the results with the secretary of state as a witness, also must take place by Dec. 12.

“We make sure that everything in there is correct and everything there is representing exactly what the counties have reported to us, and then the governor signs off on it,” said Sam Taylor, a spokesperson for the secretary of state.

A canvass can continue even if a candidate makes a recount request, which must be submitted no later than two days after a canvass. But a person cannot take office in that race until the recount is completed, according to the secretary of state’s office. If the recount changes the number of votes at all, then officials must then conduct another canvass for that specific race.

Ballots counted after Election Day and recounts typically do not change who wins an election, but it’s not unheard of in very tight races. Hancock, the elections administrator for Brazos County, said she has personally seen a recount change the outcome of an election only once.

“It was by one vote, and it was in the mail,” she said. “Someone had circled the name instead of coloring in the box, and so the computer did not recognize that. But when we did a manual recount in person, then the [recount committee] was able to see that and detect that.”

What are election inspectors? Why are they sent by the state?

The secretary of state’s office can proactively appoint state inspectors to local polling locations. If at least 15 registered voters in a county or political subdivision request a state inspector before the election, the state must also send one.

State inspectors are state employees, typically volunteers from other state agencies, trained by the secretary of state’s office on election law and procedures, Taylor said.

“They have a long checklist that they’re supposed to check off, ensuring that all the poll workers are doing what they’re supposed to be doing when they’re checking in and assisting voters,” he said.

Election inspector reports can also help the office corroborate concerns or allegations, especially in larger counties with many polling locations, Taylor said.

The state can also send election trainers, state elections staff who are former county election officials, to observe and assist counties in election procedures.

In 2020, more than 250 state inspectors were deployed across the state, Taylor said. This year, the state is sending at least 118 inspectors to polling locations in counties such as Harris, Dallas, Tarrant, Bexar, Travis, El Paso and some smaller counties. Most inspectors will be deployed for Election Day, but Harris, McLennan, Maverick and Starr counties were also sent inspectors for early voting.

Election trainers will also be sent to Gillespie County, where new staffers were trained after the county’s entire election department resigned amid unfounded local election conspiracy claims.

State election inspectors gained attention last month when county leaders in Harris County expressed concerns after the secretary of state’s office announced in a letter that the county would be receiving inspectors, pointing to an ongoing state audit of the county’s 2020 election and past procedural concerns.

The letter also said the Texas attorney general’s office would also deploy a “task force” to Harris County to “immediately respond to any legal issues identified.” Taylor said this means attorneys from the attorney general’s office will be available to go to court if needed. The attorneys cannot be at polling locations, he said. Only voters, poll workers, elections officials, poll watchers, state inspectors and other limited individuals are allowed in polling places.

The U.S. Department of Justice can also send federal election monitors to polling locations to ensure compliance with voting rights laws. In 2018, federal monitors were sent to Harris, Tarrant and Waller counties. A spokesperson for the justice department declined to comment on whether federal monitors would be sent to Harris County this year, as local leaders requested last month.

In Tarrant County, Garcia said he has gotten used to receiving state inspectors “like every election.” Brazos County had inspectors during the March primary elections, Hancock said. The reports the inspectors produce can help election administrators spot areas of improvement, such as reminding poll workers to wear name tags, she said.

“We’re responsible for all those polling places, but we can’t be in all those polling places. So sometimes we don’t hear about an issue or something that may be going on in the polling place,” she said.

What other election safeguards does Texas have?

Nov. 3, 2022 at 6:26 p.m.

Most counties in Texas use electronic voting machines that mark a paper ballot or have voters mark their own ballots by hand, a practice that experts say is important because back-up paper ballots allow elections officials to audit an election by manually counting votes, if necessary.

Many counties also use an electronic machine to count and tabulate votes. Texas requires all counties that use such machines to conduct a partial manual audit by counting a portion of paper ballots by hand to report a comparison of those results with those tabulated by the machine. Typically, about 1% of paper ballots from precincts selected by the secretary of state’s office are manually counted, Taylor said. The county clerk or elections administrator must begin the audit within 72 hours of the polls closing on Election Day and must complete the manual count within 21 days.

In the few remaining counties that have voting machines that do not use paper ballots, officials manually count 1% of mail-in ballots for the audit, according to the secretary of state’s office. The office can then look into reported differences, but Taylor said “those partial manual counts usually show very, very few, if any, discrepancies.”

A law passed last year will require all Texas voting machines to produce a paper trail by 2026. That law also created a pilot program for risk-limiting audits. Under the program, counties can sign up to conduct an audit of a greater sample of paper ballots after the midterm elections. More than 20 counties have signed up for the pilot, Taylor said.

Another broad election law passed in 2021 also now requires large counties to make video surveillance of central vote-counting stations and other places where voted ballots are stored available to the public.

Elections administrators are also making more records and information available online to help people better understand elections, Garcia said. Examples include data and records for current and past elections, answers to frequently asked questions and resources explaining the voting process and available accommodations for those with disabilities.

“I think that’s the biggest misconception — that it’s some sort of obscure thing, complicated, that no one can understand. It’s actually quite the opposite. I think we’ve simplified it to a point where anyone can audit it,” he said.

How common is voter fraud?

The layers of safeguards in place make election tampering and widespread fraud unlikely, according to elections officials and security experts.

No evidence of hacking of voting machines in a U.S. election has been found to date, Dan Wallach, a computer science professor at Rice University told The Texas Tribune.

Several studies, reports and courts have found that voter impersonation and other forms of fraud are rare, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute. Instances of alleged fraud have also in some cases turned out to be mistakes by elections administrators or voters, according to the center.

The secretary of state’s office announced an audit of the 2020 elections in the state’s largest Republican and Democratic counties — Tarrant, Collin, Dallas and Harris — in the fall of 2021. It came hours after former President Donald Trump called for an audit of Texas elections, even though Trump won the state.

The audit is still ongoing, Taylor said, and the state was waiting for some information from Harris County. But the initial findings of the audit, released last December, found few discrepancies between manual and electronic counts.

“We haven’t seen anything that would impact the outcome of the election, definitely not on a statewide scale,” he said.

Alexa Ura contributed to this report.

Disclosure: Rice University and Texas Secretary of State have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/11/04/texas-ballot-counting-secure-elections/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Credit: by María Méndez, Texas Tribune

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