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Harrison County moves to electronic voting

By Robin Y. Richardson
March 19, 2017 at 4 a.m.

Ken Tretheway with elections vendor Hart InterCivic, demonstrates at an open house how the company's new electronics device can accurately read the magnetic strip of a driver's license regardless of the state it is from.

Voters in Harrison County recently received an up-close-and-personal view of the new electronic voting system that's been proposed to not only move the county from a paper ballot voting system, but eventually qualify the county as a Vote Center model, allowing constituents to vote at any polling site they wish on Election Day.

"We had a decent number of people arrive and it's been well-received," Elections Administrator Mike McMurry said during the two-day Open House, which was hosted at the county's elections office.

"They like the idea of convenience that comes from this type of equipment and how it could benefit the county," he said.

The event drew election administrators from neighboring areas including the EA from Gregg County.

"The elections administrator from Gregg County came over along with their commissioner 3 and had a lot of good questions," McMurry said of the first day.

He said Harrison County's own officials, including Pct. 3 County Commissioner Philip Mauldin turned out the first day as well as the chairs of the local Republican and Democratic parties.

"Some poll workers and hopefully some future poll workers (attended), so they had some practical knowledge using the old equipment and how the ease of use is with the new devices," McMurry said.

McMurry explained before that with aging election equipment, the county will soon have to decide whether to continue with a newer paper ballot system or upgrade to an all electronic voting system.

"We do have equipment that is nearing end-of-life and decisions need to be made on its replacement," he said. "We're currently focused on Hart because of our relationship with the company. The features and functionality of the devices, too, are a great plus.

"An added benefit to going to a new system that is all electronic is the added convenience for the voters, mainly; and servicing them and the constituents of the commissioners court and overall reduced costs, which lead to savings as far as polling locations and workers in the future if we can get to a county-wide Vote Center model," McMurry said.

Elections vendor Hart InterCivic was on hand during the Open House, demonstrating the features of its Verity line of Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) voting equipment as well as the PollPad voter qualification solution.

McMurry explained before that the Verity Touch line of DRE voting equipment is a recommended replacement for the aging paper system devices that the county has been utilizing since 2005. Hart InterCivic representative Ken Tretheway said counties he's visited with have been most impressed with the opportunity to ultimately convert to a Vote Center model.

"That's the key," he said. "Almost every county I talk to wants to go to county-wide polling places, which is where anybody can go anywhere on election day and vote and never get turned away and told you're at the wrong polling place.

"People hate that," he said. "So everybody wants to go to that Vote Center model; and according to current state law, you have to have an electronic voting system to do that.

Thus, "that's been the big driver of why all of the counties - that's been refreshing the 12-year-old voting systems - have bought an electronic system as the replacement," Tretheway said.

McMurry noted that the numerous ePoll books that the county purchased from Hart InterCivic in 2015 are still in working condition, but he thinks the county should go ahead and move forward with the new text generation solution, PollPad, in order to take advantage of the no-cost software that Hart InterCivic is offering.

"PollPad can replace the ePollbook and it captures voter signatures electronically versus requiring the need for a paper log (combination form) when somebody votes in-person," McMurry explained before.

"The ePollbook is fine, but the PollPad's functionality, once you see it and used with Verity systems, is seamless and very efficient," he said.

Benefits and efficiencies

Through the setup of mock elections, attendees at the Open House were able to get a taste on how the machines operate.

"We try to think of it as convenient as possible for the voters," Tretheway explained before. "If they are listening to the audio, if they are blind or illiterate or forgot their glasses… or for whatever reason they are listening to the ballot, they can not only change the volume that is reading to them, but they can speed it up."

Another plus is at the polling site, poll workers will be able to manage each device through one controller. Voters can also skip to the categories they want to vote in and review their choices.

McMurry said while the goal is to convert to an all electronic system for in-person voting, paper ballots will still be available to those eligible to vote ballot-by-mail.

"That's what I'm pushing for," McMurry said of an all electronic voting system. "I see great efficiencies, especially for the convenience and service to the voters."

He recognizes the challenges he may face with getting people to transition from a paper form to all electronic, but he realizes most have become adapted to an electric way of life anyhow.

"Part of our arguments is you have people that have a concern with paper or the electronic model," McMurry said. However, "you have electronic banking, you use a smart phone, you file your taxes online, you play with Facebook…

"There's a lot of things like that we can probably mitigate those arguments," he said, adding they've also addressed any security needs.

"As far as having a paper trail, we can print paper ballots from the electronic equipment for a recount or any other verification; so, if they are concerned with something that is a fallback for that accountability we can do that today even with this old system," McMurry said.

Addressing concerns

When presenting the information to the Harrison County Commissioners Court, prior to the Open House, the court expressed concerns about the cost of the proposed equipment.

Pct. 1 County Commissioner William Hatfield asked if the elections administrator could look into buying any surplus equipment as far as scanners as well as backup devices from counties that can afford to upgrade to the proposed paperless system.

McMurry explained that the surplus equipment is usually picked up by the actual vendor at no cost and then disposed of by the vendor. Responding to a similar inquiry from Pct. 4 Commissioner Jay Ebarb, McMurry said the surplus is still old equipment.

Hatfield said although old, it's still usable.

"It may be the old equipment but we just went through probably the election of the decade, if not one of the biggest ones in Harrison County history," Hatfield said. "We got through it just fine with our paper and our number two pencils and a few (electronic) pads.

"I just don't see where this court is going to be able to come up with the million and something dollars that you're referring to, (in order) to save the taxpayers money on the $8.50 an hour people to get this done," the commissioner said.

McMurry revealed some struggles he's had with the old equipment.

"Just in this fiscal year, I've already had sent back four e-scans to be repaired at a minimum of $800 each," he said. "That's just going to get worse."

He said the problem affected him during the early voting process.

"I had scanners failing in the midst of early voting with all that volume and it kept me up at night for two weeks," McMurry shared.

"The equipment was failing, and I was exhausting my spares that I already had set aside, and that's what kind of put me on edge because the equipment is going to be doing that," he explained.

McMurry said he's just suggesting that there's an opportunity for the PollPad, which is the next generation of voter qualification equipment that could enhance the overall experience of voting.

"I don't know what the details are on the pricing if we were to go that route on a PollPad," he said. "Again, there would be discounts offered to basically do a trade-in or swap to the PollPad, but the key thing I want to emphasize is this is an opportunity for the general public to become informed about the Verity and (what) all electronic solutions are."



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