“Fleeing Voters” Force Ballot Re-Scans in Travis County, TX

[Image via marcjohns]

Travis County (Austin), TX had to re-scan several precinct boxes after Tuesday’s election because of an unusually high number of voters “fleeing” the polling place without depositing their printed ballot cards. The Austin Chronicle has more:

Final vote counts in the Tuesday Travis County election were not completed until early Wednesday morning. County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir said Wednesday afternoon that voters taking away their ballot cards instead of depositing them in the ballot box meant numerous recounts.

In a release issued Wednesday morning, DeBeauvoir said election-day ballot boxes were received at the Clerk’s office for counting at 11:17pm (already later than has been the standard for completion in recent years), and were not finally counted and totals announced until 3:45am. More specifically, DeBeauvoir said, “Texas Election Code requires that we re-count ballot cards for any polling place where there is a difference between the number of voters who checked in and the number of ballot cards that are submitted. Because of this statutory requirement, our office was required to re-count ballots from 15 [of 30] polling locations, which took several hours.”

While the concept of fleeing voters isn’t unusual, it appears that Travis’ switch to a new system may have led to voter confusion about how to handle paper ballot cards – including in some of the county’s busiest precincts – produced after they make their selections:

At a press conference Wednesday afternoon with DeBeauvoir and Chief Deputy Clerk Ron Morgan, the officials elaborated on the details of the problem, generated indirectly by the new voting equipment that — in addition to counting votes electronically — provides a “ballot card” that the voter then reviews for accuracy, and (presuming no change needed) deposits into a scanning ballot box that actually preserves the cards.

Under a state law enacted in 1991 and then addressing “optical scan ballots” — physically marked by a voter and then scanned electronically to record the votes — a poll station discrepancy (of a minimum of 4 ballots) between the number of initially checked-in voters and subsequently scanned ballots triggers the requirement for voting officials to re-scan all ballots from that location to confirm the count. Yesterday, a discrepancy of four or more was discovered for 15 of 30 locations (numbering per location from 4 ballots to 14, said Morgan), meaning all those ballots (including those from seven collected in the 15 busiest polling places) had to be re-scanned at the Clerk’s headquarters on Airport Blvd., by a dozen staffers using confirmation scanners there.

DeBeauvoir said the phenomena of incomplete voting is common enough to have its own term among election officials. “Fleeing voters” refers to any voter who checks in and is recorded at the judges’ station but, for whatever reason, then fails to complete the voting process. Some might simply change their minds about voting, be interrupted by other business, or not understand that their vote will not be recorded (in the current instance) unless they complete the final step of feeding the now-printed ballot into the scanning ballot box. DeBeauvoir also suspects that at least some voters kept their printed ballot cards as a personal “souvenir” and confirmation of having voted – not realizing that their vote would not be recorded without completing the entire process.

The 2019 experience suggests that the County will need to figure out, and soon, how to alert voters of the need to deposit their ballot cards in order to complete their votes pursuant to state law:

In Travis County’s previous system, if a person checked in but left the polls before completion – perhaps by neglecting to push the red “vote” button on the final page – that vote would simply be “canceled,” as the law forbids a poll worker from pushing the “vote” button for someone else. (It would not trigger the re-scanning requirement, as there would be nothing to re-scan.) Although yesterday’s poll judges were trained and did what they could to inform voters verbally that their votes would not be recorded if they did not complete the process, at the particularly busy polling stations (e.g. supermarkets and megacenters) judges were unable to corral and redirect every potential fleeing voter.

“Voters absolutely loved the new voting system,” DeBeauvoir told reporters, and she read an enthusiastic email from a voter applauding the process. “They like the security of a paper trail, and they like the easy-to-use touch screen,” she said, citing numerous conversations with satisfied voters. The clerk (like voting officials nationwide) has been under public pressure to move toward a voting system that creates a checkable “paper trail” for voters, and she believes the county’s new system provides the “best of both worlds” – computerized accuracy and paper confirmation.

But the Nov. 5 election also appears to reflect the law of unintended consequences – generating physical ballot cards inevitably means that some of those cards will go missing, intentionally or not – and if it happens with four or more at a given station, all the ballots from that station will be re-scanned at the end of the evening. “The law that requires this [Election Code 127.156] was written for a different century and a different voting system,” said DeBeauvoir, “but it remains the law, and we’ll abide by it.”

One factor to keep in mind is that while fewer voters will likely use Election Day precincts in 2020, there will be more of them – so even a similar rate of “fleeing voters” could yield even more missing ballot cards – and more re-scans:

DeBeauvoir did say she is in discussion with the Texas Secretary of State of how best to address the problem, which is virtually certain to recur in the March primary elections and next November’s general election, because of the sheer numbers of voters. Nearly 1,500 voters cast ballots at the Randall’s on Research Blvd., for example, and many thousands more will be voting there next year. DeBeauvoir acknowledged that meant the odds are essentially certain that four or more of those voters will mistakenly or intentionally “flee” without completing the process – triggering a legally required recount of all those votes.

DeBeauvoir noted that not all solutions are within the control of officials, as the voters determine actual voting behavior. A large proportion of election-day voters, for example, chose to vote during Tuesday’s rush hour or later – “because that’s when they had the time” – meaning some polls were still accepting ballots from people in line by 7pm, until 9pm. “That crush makes it very difficult for the judges to keep the line moving,” she said, “or to monitor the process sufficiently.” A general election in Travis County can expect a 60% early vote turnout, 40% election day – but for constitutional and referendum elections like Tuesday’s, the proportions are reversed.

It took a dozen workers about four hours, from approximately 11pm to 3am, to complete the scanning that confirmed yesterday’s original results, while re-scanning 20% of the total collected ballot cards. Given many thousands more ballots – the difference between a 15% turnout and 65% or higher for a general election – DeBeauvoir is understandably daunted by what may come. “We have to fix it before March,” she said, although without further review and consultation with state officials, she isn’t certain what that fix might look like.

DeBeauvoir reiterated, “It will be difficult to fix before March – but we have to find a fix.”

I don’t envy Travis’ task in 2020 – especially since there will not only be a much higher turnout but also likely a large number of “cicada voters” for whom any change since 2016 will be new to them. One option, of course, is for the state to change the four-ballot rescan requirement but that seems unlikely, plus no one is going to be interested in enabling more walk-away ballots. It will be interesting to what can be done to keep voters from fleeing in even larger numbers next year. Stay tuned …

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