At 100 voting locations, election officials in Harris County will be testing a new way for voters to sign in at polling places. As it stands right now, on Election Day, a Harris County voter goes to a voting precinct, an assistant helps find the voter’s name in a paper poll book, and then the voter signs in and proceeds to vote.
At the 10 locations, though, voters will be testing a system in which they electronically sign in to vote using an iPad. The experts call it an electronic poll book. If the system works, it may be the way all voters sign in to cast their ballots in future elections.
“As you know, last year we had people waiting in line. I don’t like people waiting in lines, especially when there’s a voting booth sitting empty. So the electronic poll books allow us to qualify the voters much faster,” says Stan Stanart, the Clerk of Harris County. Since 2010, Stanart has served as the chief election officer for the county.
In addition to saving voters some time, the other major advantage of an electronic poll book is that it allows voters the freedom to cast their ballots at any polling location, or Voting Center, in the county. If that system sounds familiar, it is. It’s the system used for early voting in Harris County.
Critics don’t oppose voting centers and the electronic poll book – just how long it’s taken to get the system into place. Kevin Hoffman is a Democratic Chair in Precinct 207. He addressed the Commissioner’s Court in June.
“We received a group of iPads that have been in the custody of the County Clerk’s Office that have been gone unused. These to my knowledge are still in storage,” says Hoffman.
According to previous news reports, Stanart purchased 2,400 iPads – at a cost of over $1 million – in July 2015. Stanart admits most of the iPads remain in the boxes they were shipped in, and he told Judge Ed Emmett that the early voting poll book actually won’t work on Election Day.
“It just will not scale to be able to handle Harris County,” Stanart told the Commissioner’s Court on June 27.
The problem, Stanart said, is that Harris County will operate 735 voting locations on an election day, and no software currently exists that can handle that many voting locations.
Others disagree with him. Ben Martin is the chief operating officer for VR Systems, based in Florida, which sells software for iPad voting systems – software that Harris County does not have.
“Our software is capable of handling more than 2.4 million voters. Our largest jurisdiction currently is Miami-Dade County and that has 1.6 million,” Martin says. He says VR Systems is now pursuing the business of a jurisdiction with over 5 million voters using an electronic poll book, and that their software can handle both early voting and election day voting.
VO-Tech, based in San Diego, provides the electronic poll book for Cook County in Illinois. The city of Chicago is separated from the county on Election Day, but Cook County still has over 2,000,000 voters outside of Chicago.
They also provide voting software to Harris County, but not for the iPads. President John Metcalf says they’ve never received a Request for Proposal from Harris County to provide an electronic poll book. Neither has VR Systems.
Stanart says he’s saving the county some money by writing its own software. “It’s taken a while, taken uh, oh gosh I don’t know a year and a half, two years, I mean it’s been a good while, we’ve working on it diligently,” he said.
In Arizona, Maricopa County has 2.2 million voters, though fewer people vote on Election Day than in Harris County. Adrian Fontes oversees voting there and he says they wrote their own software in less than six months.
What Fontes – and others – can’t understand is why Stanart purchased so many iPads before a software program that could handle Harris County existed. “I don’t want to second guess Stan, but maybe he got [a] deal on those things and went out and bought ‘em and said, Hey we’re gonna work them into the system bit by bit,” he says.
Stanart says he doesn’t think the county saved money by purchasing the iPads three years before voting centers would become an Election Day reality – and he second guesses himself.
“In hindsight, yeah I would have not bought ‘em quite as early as we did, but we’re still going use them. They work fast. They work great. They’ll serve the purpose. They have lots of life left in them,” says Stanart who plans to have all the iPads in use by 2018.