Interim Hearing

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Today, the Texas House Elections Committee held a hearing in Austin to discuss interim charges.

Issued by lame-duck Speaker of the House, Dennis Bonnen, to his similarly situated committee chairs, this hearing and subsequent hearings are likely to be little more than going through the motions.

Interim charges issued by Bonnen followed his announcement that he would not seek reelection, following him and his consultants butt fumbling of public relations after the release of a recording of the Speaker making derogatory comments about fellow members and offering a quid pro quo to conservative leader Michael Quinn Sullivan.

The committee took invited testimony from Keith Ingram, Secretary of State Director of Elections, and Chris Davis, representing the Texas Association of Elections Administrators. The hearing, when boiled down, amounted to oversight of legislation passed during the 2019 legislative session.

HB 4130

The most important bill reviewed today was HB 4130. Keith Ingram testified that they “very much appreciated it’s passage” because beforehand there was a wide variety of systems for e-poll books and no oversight systems in place.

The Secretary of State (SOS) is now developing procedures to “adequately certify electronic poll books” and adopt rules mandating real-time updates for electronic poll books used during the early voting period or under the countywide polling place program. Ingram testified that they have used Indiana and Ohio as models for their handbooks, with other strict standards from California and Virginia.

All vendors that applied had their systems tested and 6 vendors were approved. Ingram admitted that more work must be done to establish common standards for Texas making all systems compatible so “vendors can’t hold each other hostage.” This was the case during the legislative session where a vendor was able to block much-needed reforms, holding the entire state hostage.

Perhaps the Secretary of State’s office learned its lesson after they were hoodwinked by Dallas County. Election administrator Tony Pippins-Poole. In 2019, Dallas County conducted elections with new equipment in order to qualify the county for countywide polling ahead of 2020. The SOS certified Pippins-Poole’s program, only to have her publicly undermine her own machines as being incompatible and subject to potential hacking threats (no hacking was alleged or proved).

This sudden shift necessitated Dallas County spending over $6 million for all new e-poll book machines, switching processes midstream. Why did the SOS’s office not catch the problem before certification?

When asked about Dallas County, Ingram acted as if he knew very little about the subject. He claimed it was an issue with Dallas wanting higher encryption and incompatibility between the Tenex e-poll book system and another vendor’s printer. Clearly not fully informed, Ingram went on to say that Tarrant County, who uses Tenex, was also having issues. Chris Davis quickly corrected him. Tarrant County is not having this issue with Tenex. In his testimony, Davis also emphasized that common data formats are needed so systems could more easily communicate.

HB 933

In a session when substantive reforms were needed to safeguard the 2020 election, the House moved less impactful legislation like HB 933, mandating election information be posted on the SOS’s and each county’s website. Keith Ingram testified that a lack of personnel made this process difficult, mostly in the initial set-up process, but that it will be an ongoing issue as well.

Chris Davis testified that “counties are learning to comply and complying.” He encourages entities to contract with the county because they are in the business of running elections and will be more effective and efficient.

Ingram also addressed the SOS handling candidate listings, which was not part of 933, stating that local entities would be “extremely difficult”, an “insurmountable task.” He testified that a big part of the problem is local entities not contracting with the county. It seems many problems could be fixed by entities contracting with the county.

HB 1421

At a time when public trust in elections is at all-time lows, lawmakers worked to undermine reports of foreign hacking of elections with HB 1421, providing funding for a vendor to conduct audits and training of counties. Keith Ingram testified that they did have 2173 people complete the cyber hygiene training and cleaned up user rolls. All TEAMs usernames are now those of current users who have received training.

The first draft of best practices has been developed, and the SOS plans to get feedback from counties before the standards become rules. 68 counties have gone through the assessment process, 8 are going through it now, and the majority of remaining counties are to go through it by the end of summer.  Newton and San Saba counties have refused. They don’t believe themselves to need the audits. This is a common problem across Texas, with each county acting independently, many are not fully compliant with the law.

Chris Davis testified counties are generally welcoming to the assessments because they are funded by federal dollars. Counties are also requesting that some of the federal money to be used for media kits to increase the perception of security.

Representative Celia Israel brought up the League of Women Voter’s allegation that county websites are not secure. Ingram stated that he encourages counties to obtain a .gov domain so they are not spoofable.

Misc.

HB 2504, which modifies ballot access requirements for non-major party nominees was also discussed.

The committee did allow for public testimony and Alan Vera, head of the Harris County Republican Party Ballot Security Committee, and Ed Johnson, also of Harris County, were among those who testified.

Both men called for the e-poll book systems to create a copy of the list of voters who voted in the polling place that day. They claim it is essential for the judge to compare the number of names on the list with the number of votes. But can’t they count the paper ballot backups? Oh, wait. Harris County and these two men, in particular, have fought against paper ballot backup mandates.

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