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Brazos elections officials shoulder new costs and burdens to appease skeptics

An added $14,000 cost for specially numbered ballot paper is the latest effort to address activists’ demands.

People stand while voting at booths in a room with a high ceiling.
Voters cast their ballots at the West Gray Multiservice Center on Nov. 7, 2023 in Houston. (Photo illustration by Annie Mulligan for The Texas Tribune)

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In Brazos County, suspicions about elections burst into the open last fall, just weeks after a visit from an out-of-state group calling for ballots to be hand-counted.

“Everything seems great. But if you study this, you’ll find that it’s possible to pre-program electronic voting machines and make it do whatever you want,” one resident said at a commissioners court meeting last November, without evidence to support the claims.

“Ever since these machines came along, I’ve heard nothing but accusations of fraud,” said another resident. “I am asking you to investigate. Something was wrong in the 2020 election. Voting machines do only what they’re programmed to do.”

Similar comments continued to pour in for months — at meetings, in emails to county officials, and through public record requests to the county elections department — from people who insisted that the best answer is for counties to ditch voting equipment altogether and to hand count ballots.

County leaders and election officials have since repeatedly tried to assure residents that elections in Brazos are safe and accurate. They’ve invited skeptics to help recount ballots themselves. They’re spending more money and investing more time to accommodate the residents’ demands for changes, even if they think the changes won’t make elections any more secure.

Still, in Brazos, as in other counties, election officials foresee no end to the demands from far-right activists who allege that Texas elections are tainted by fraud, even as the Republican candidates they favor win a lot of them.

So officials continue to work with the concerned citizens, and shoulder new costs, to head off what they see as the even bigger burden of a mandatory hand count.

In Brazos, the latest attempt to appease proponents of hand counts will cost the county an additional $14,000 for the November election, a recurring expense that will grow over time, said county Elections Administrator Trudy Hancock.

The cost is for a special kind of ballot paper that comes preprinted with sequential serial numbers, starting with 1. Voting fraud activists have demanded this kind of paper for years, arguing that it would help officials detect and prevent double voting.

Such instances of fraud are rare, though, and Texas already has systems in place to prevent it.

Experts say the preprinted numbering could threaten voters’ ballot secrecy, so Brazos election officials will have to take even more steps to secure the vote.

And with the preprinted paper, surplus stock cannot be used in later elections, Hancock said. So in the long run, it’ll likely end up costing the county more.

“Say that we have 20,000 pieces of paper that we don’t use, you have to add the total cost of that 20,000 pieces of paper,” Hancock said. “We cannot reuse it. We’d have to store that paper for 22 months and then shred it. It’s useless.”

How misinformation affects the push for hand counts in Brazos

Brazos County, home to College Station and Texas A&M University, has about 128,000 registered voters. Election officials here are among several across the state who have heard demands from far-right activists to switch from electronic voting equipment to hand-counting, a method that has been proven to be less accurate, more costly, and far less secure than electronic tabulating machines.

In some cases, the activists have prevailed over objections from county leaders. In the Texas Hill Country, Gillespie County Republicans hand counted ballots during the March 5 primary and kept finding errors in vote aggregations.

In Brazos, the movement grew after a group of election conspiracy theorists came to town questioning the validity of electronic voting equipment and promoting hand counts. At a public event, which made the rounds across Texas counties last year, speakers promoted their ideas based on election misinformation.

Some Republicans began to echo those concerns at commissioner court meetings. In October, the county commissioners sat through a presentation by Brazos resident Walter Daughterity. Daughterity, a retired computer science professor at Texas A&M and ally of election conspiracy theorist Mike Lindell, falsely claimed Brazos’ voting machines are connected to the internet and that the equipment is not certified by federal officials. Daughterity proposed shuttering the electronic voting equipment and hand-counting ballots instead.

A group of people sit and stand in a couple of rows of chairs in a meeting room.
Brazos County residents gathered at a Q&A hosted by the county elections department on Jan. 24, 2024. At the two-hour meeting, elections staff went over the local election process and answered questions about the county's voting equipment and voter registration management process. (Screengrab of Brazos County Youtube)

Daughterity did not respond to Votebeat’s questions about whether he has any experience working on or administering elections in Brazos or anywhere else. Instead he linked to his “expert witness declarations” in the lawsuit filed by failed Arizona GOP gubernatorial candidate, Kari Lake. Trial and appellate courts in Arizona have dismissed her claims of election malfeasance.

At Daughterity’s presentation, Brazos County Judge Duane Peters defended the county’s voting system and assured those who attended that it is certified, citing approval to use it from the Texas Secretary of State. Peters, a Republican, has been a leader in Brazos County for over a decade.

Brazos County commissioners never considered a formal measure to ditch the county’s voting equipment and adopt hand counting. After the November election, however, the county expanded its state-mandated partial manual counts in response to the concerns of some residents, including Daughterity.

Done after each election, the partial manual count is a hand count of races from either 1% of a county’s precincts or three precincts — whichever is greater — to verify the accuracy of the results tabulated by the voting equipment. The Texas Secretary of State’s Office designates which races and precincts must be hand counted and then notifies county election officials.

Hancock said some residents didn’t like that state officials choose which races and precincts get hand counted. “Their theory is that at the state level, they know in which precincts we have altered the numbers,” Hancock said. “So they think that since the state knows that, that they wouldn’t send us those locations to count.”

So Hancock asked secretary of state officials for approval to have county election officials randomly select additional precincts to be hand counted. The secretary of state’s office agreed, and the county hand counted three additional precincts. The process, which found no discrepancies and showed the vote was accurate, was livestreamed on the county’s elections website.

After the March primary election, Hancock went a step further. She invited representatives from each party to conduct the post-election audit themselves. Among the Republicans who participated were some of the most vocal election skeptics.

It took the groups of Republican and Democrats an entire day to count more than 1,400 ballots. No discrepancies were found, and the count showed the machines’ results were accurate.

Brazos County Republican Party officials did not respond to a request for comment and did not answer questions about their participation in the count.

The dispute over how ballot paper is numbered in Texas

The other concession by Brazos officials, to spend resources on preprinted sequentially numbered ballots, is the latest episode in a yearslong dispute between Texas election officials and voter fraud activists.

By law, ballots used in Texas must be sequentially numbered starting with 1, and distributed to polling places in batches so that “a specific range can be linked to a specific polling place.”

The law also says that ballots at a polling place “must be distributed to voters non-sequentially in order to preserve ballot secrecy.”

How counties across the state comply with these rules depends on the type of voting equipment they use. For instance, some counties, including Brazos, purchase blank ballot paper that voters insert into a touch-screen voting machine called a ballot marking device at the polling place. Once the voter is done making their candidate selections, the device prints the voter’s ballot with a randomized number to preserve ballot secrecy.

The Texas Secretary of State and the Texas Attorney General have both clarified that this randomized numbering complies with the law. But voting fraud activists dispute this and continue to falsely claim that the randomly numbered ballots produced by the ballot marking devices cannot be audited.

Election administrators in Texas have the authority to decide the ballot-numbering method. In Hood County, tensions with voter fraud activists in 2021 over ballot numbering drove the elections administrator to resign. The county eventually purchased sequentially numbered ballot paper under a new elections administrator. The administrator did not respond to Votebeat’s questions about whether the new ballots helped restore trust in the process.

Activists have also made these calls for sequentially numbered ballots in Tarrant County. County Judge Tim O’Hare, whose administration created an election integrity task force despite the lack of evidence of widespread voter fraud, said sequentially numbered ballots would “make the election more secure, create more trust in the outcome, and serve as a deterrent against fraud.” The county recently approved spending more than $30,000 on the sequentially numbered ballots for the November election.

The type of paper required is more costly because it isn’t easily found off the shelf. It is custom printed by voting machine vendors. Additionally, counties have to order more paper than they typically would, to prevent a shortage or account for paper jams at polling locations. Election workers in Brazos will go through additional training to ensure they randomize and shuffle the ballots at the polling place to protect ballot secrecy as directed by state law.

In nations with high levels of fraud, sequentially numbered ballots can be helpful because officials can match the number to a voter and check whether that person voted already or not.

In the United States, election departments have voter registration databases, voter histories, and other practices in place that help ensure that each voter is casting only one ballot, said Mitchell Brown, a political science professor at Auburn University and an expert on election administration.

“What we track is who votes, not how they vote,” Brown said. “In some places, it’s a good government measure, and other places it is not. So the context of how [numbered ballots] are used, and why they’re being used really matters.”

In Brazos, Peters, the county judge, is certain this latest move to try to appease the election skeptics in the county “won’t prove anything.”

“It’s a compromise,” Peters told Votebeat. “I know they say they’re concerned about the elections… . My concern was that if we totally changed the way we do elections [by adopting hand counting] that it was going to fail and that we were going to have people who wouldn’t know what they’re doing.”

Hancock, who has been the county’s elections director since 2015 and has worked elections in Texas for more than two decades, said it’s quite possible that her efforts may never satisfy the activists. She only hopes she can prevent the spread of misinformation in Brazos. She wants voters to see that her office is “doing everything that we can to ensure that a person’s ballot is cast in a secure manner and counted the way that they intend for it to be counted.”

“So if I can add a few more hours to my day or whatever to help those people have confidence in what we do for voters,” she said, “then I’m happy to do that.”

Natalia Contreras covers election administration and voting access for Votebeat in partnership with the Texas Tribune. Natalia is based in Corpus Christi. Contact her at ncontreras@votebeat.org.

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