e-Texas e-Texassmaller smarter faster governmentDecember, 2000
Carole Keeton Rylander
Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts

Recommendations of the Texas Comptroller

Chapter 1: Electronic Government

Standardize Ballots and Expand Electronic Voting Options


Recent, highly publicized controversies over current election practices could be avoided in Texas by expanding the authority of the Texas Secretary of State’s Office (SOS) to establish uniform ballots, ensuring consistency and fairness across voting jurisdictions. The SOS should investigate new voting options that are both feasible and cost-effective for as many Texas counties as possible.


Across the nation and in Texas, votes may be cast through a number of approved methods (Exhibit 1).[1]

Exhibit 1

Common Voting Methods in the US

Voting Method
Special Considerations
Paper ballots
Voters use a pencil to check the box next to the preferred candidate’s name on the ballot, which is counted by hand. Very little confusion for the voter. Ballots are secured in a locked box and are counted by hand.
Security issues can arise when ballots are counted. During recounts, fraud is possible through intentional smudging or double-checking by the counter. Used by 1.7 percent of voters in the 1996 presidential election.
Punch cards
Voters make their selection by punching through the ballot. The most common voting mistake is incompletely punching out the chad (the small piece of paper to be punched out). If ballot is laid out correctly, the system is easy to use. Votes are counted by high-speed counting machines with an accuracy rate of 99 percent. Ballots are secured in a locked box.
Errors occur when voters fail to completely punch out the chad and the machine cannot register the vote. In recounts, it can be difficult to tell the intent of the voter. Used by 37.3 percent of voters in the 1996 presidential election.
Marksense (Optical Scanner)
Using a pencil, voters fill in an oval or other space next to the name of their candidate. Very easy for voters to use. Voting mistakes usually include incompletely filled-in ovals, marks outside the oval, and the marking of two candidates in the same race. Votes are secured in a locked ballot box and are counted by high-speed optical scanners. Ballots must be printed properly for scanners to read them.
These types of ballots are subject to the same opportunity for fraud as paper ballots, since anyone can mark an oval with a pencil during a recount, but tampering is easier to spot than with paper or punch card ballots. Used by 24.6 percent of voters in the 1996 presidential election.
Mechanical Lever Machine
Voters make their selection by pulling a lever next to the name of their choice, making it easy for voters to use if the ballot in the machine is properly laid out. Machine records the votes and issues a report to election officials after the polls are closed. No ballots are used.
Votes are secured by locking the voting machine. These machines are no longer being manufactured. Used by 20.7 percent of voters in the 1996 presidential election.
Direct Recording Electronic Device (DRE)
DREs are the most recent form of voting system. They represent an electronic version of the old mechanical lever systems; candidate choices are visible to the voter on the front of the machine. The voter directly enters choices into electronic storage with the use of a touch-screen, push buttons, or a similar device. An alphabetic keyboard allows for write-in votes. The voter’s choices are stored in these machines via a memory cartridge, diskette, or “smart card,” and added to the choices of all other voters.
In 1996, 7.7 percent of the registered voters in the US used some type of DRE voting system. Some problems with the touch screens have been reported. Although DREs have a zero counting error rate, errors are still possible; Dallas County reported to the SOS that 15,000 votes were temporarily “lost” in the 1998 election.[2]

Source: Federal Elections Commission.

Texas Election Processes and Voting Options

The Texas Election Code establishes guidelines and rules that counties and other governmental entities must follow in conducting public elections, whether federal, state, or local.[3] The code and administrative regulations adopted by SOS prescribe the kinds of voting systems that may be used in the state’s public elections.[4] The code authorizes traditional paper ballots, voting machines, electronic voting systems, and other systems.[5] County commissioners courts hold much of the responsibility for general elections, while the governing bodies of such entities as cities, school districts, and community college districts generally hold responsibility for their respective local elections. The code begins with the assumption that paper ballots will be used, but authorizes the use of other voting systems as well (Exhibit 2).[6]

Exhibit 2

Voting Methods in Texas Counties

Voting Method
Number of Counties
Paper Ballot
89 counties
Punch-Card Ballot
14 counties
Marksense (Optical Scan)
149 counties
Machine (lever)
2 counties
Electronic (DRE)
Upton, Dallas, and El Paso counties use DRE for early voting; others are testing new systems.
254 counties

Source: Texas Secretary of State's Office.

The Election Code prescribes standards for each authorized voting system. A voting system must preserve the secrecy of the ballot; operate safely, efficiently, and accurately; prevent fraudulent or unauthorized manipulation; prevent the counting of votes by a single voter for more than one candidate for the same office; and provide records to audit the voting system.[7] The SOS may add to these standards.[8] The code also authorizes the Secretary of State to inspect voting systems at any time to determine whether they comply with applicable standards.[9] Some voting systems may perform better than others, but none are error-free. Melinda Nickless, director of Election Administration at the SOS, said, “As long as human beings are involved, there is a possibility of error.”[10]

Election Reform Needed

The 2000 presidential election has put a spotlight on the need for election reform. Razor-thin margins in a number of states and throughout Florida have highlighted irregularities in the various voting methods used. In particular, the punch-card ballot has received extensive press coverage. Errors can occur when voters fail to completely punch out the chad (the small piece of paper to be punched out) or when the chad is not completely detached. In 1993, the results of a local election in Massachusetts were reversed after authorities discovered errors caused by incompletely detached, or “hanging,” chads.[11]

Texas has witnessed a number of instances of alleged election fraud and other irregularities throughout its history. Fraud is seldom proven in court, however, due possibly to the high cost of contesting an election or mounting a court battle. State Representative Arlene Wohlgemuth, for example, defeated her opponent through a recount in 1994, but spent $142,000 to do so in an election that had only cost her $82,000.[12]

State law sets guidelines for the recounting of ballots.[13] Instances of recounts changing the results of elections in Texas are rare, but it does happen occasionally. Recounts occurred in 1979 and 1984 in US Senate races in Texas, while Texas Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs won a seat in the Texas House of Representatives in 1992 after legal action and a recount. State Representative Rick Green won his first race, in 1998, through such a recount.[14]

Ballot Uniformity

The contested presidential election of 2000 has prompted much discussion about the need for standardized ballots. Although Texas law assures some general uniformity by authorizing specific voting systems for use in general elections, the Election Code mandates only a limited degree of uniformity within those voting systems.

The code’s specific rules for elections conducted on paper dictates items such as the color of the ink and paper to be used (black ink and white or light-colored paper); the numbering of the ballots; the designation of the election for which the ballot is to be used; the use of vertical columns for parties and horizontal rows for offices of partisan elections; the position of the square for voting to the left of each candidate’s name; and the voting square for a straight party vote.[15] The code also specifies the exact order in which the names of parties, offices, and names of candidates must appear in general and primary elections.[16]

In biennial general elections, the county clerk is responsible for preparing the official ballot, and determines the layout, font sizes and types, and other aspects of user-friendliness.[17] The code does not speak to matters such as the dimensions of the ballot, the size of the margins separating the printed part of the ballot from the edges of the paper, the spacing between races or candidates, and whether the names of offices and candidates should be put into boxes in nonpartisan elections.[18]

When a governing entity such as a county commissioners court adopts a voting system that does not use paper ballots, special rules supplement and modify the code’s rules. For example, the code provides that the “electronic system ballot may be any size, composition, color, and texture that is suitable for the electronic voting system in which it is used,” so long as the sample ballot and the official ballot are not the same color.[19]

In summary, the Texas Election Code does provide for some uniformity as to the form of the ballot, but still leaves many matters to the discretion of the authority responsible for preparing the ballot.

In the wake of the recent presidential election problems, US Senator Charles Schumer has announced that he will introduce legislation to fund a comprehensive study of voting methods used in the United States and create a matching grant program to help states update their systems. A November Gallup Poll released found that 67 percent of Americans favor federal laws requiring all states to use the same ballots and voting systems.[20]

In Texas, much could be done to simplify and standardize the voting process through methods already widely used in the state. The SOS has adopted standards and rules for the use of direct recording electronic voting systems. Like the equipment for all voting systems (other than paper ballots), direct recording electronic (DRE) equipment must be tested and approved by the SOS before any county can purchase them for elections. The rules also require that a voter must be able to use a single machine to vote on all races and measures included in an election.[21]

The SOS sends inspectors to observe elections throughout the state, but so far it has not prepared any reports identifying common errors, providing guidance to election officials, and summarizing best practices.[22] Such a report could improve the overall election process for counties, cities, school districts, community college districts, and other election authorities in Texas.

Electronic and Internet Voting

Many areas of the country are developing electronic voting systems now that technological innovations and lowered equipment costs have made it practical. The SOS has certified a number of DRE products that counties may purchase.[23]

DRE devices record votes at a polling place. The recorded votes then must be delivered via cartridge or disk to a tabulation center, in a process not dissimilar to that used for paper ballots.

Internet voting, by contrast, has been defined as “the casting of a secure and secret electronic ballot that is transmitted to election officials using the Internet.”[24] Internet voting could be conducted from traditional polling places and supervised by election officials; or from unsupervised locations such as the voter’s home or office, or a community center.

The Election Code contains no provisions authorizing voters to vote from a remote site, except, for example, military personnel in combat zones, astronauts, and citizens voting absentee by mail.[25] To date only two Texas residents have cast votes electronically from remote sites. They were stationed in Turkey, and qualified to vote because they were military personnel in a combat hazard zone.[26]

One key problem with remote voting concerns the process of “accepting the voter”— that is, the process by which a voter presents a voter registration card, signs the roster, and moves toward selecting a ballot.[27] Clearly, a remote Internet voter would have to be given some kind of encoded electronic key or digital signature in order to be accepted.

The US Department of Defense (DOD) administers the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP), which also piloted online voting in the 2000 presidential election. The FVAP helps service members and civilians overseas vote in federal elections. About 250 voters from five counties in Texas, Florida, South Carolina, and Utah participated in the pilot. Each voter had to apply for a password and digital signature from a commanding officer or embassy. Voters also submitted paper ballots in case of a security glitch.[28]

In the 2000 Democratic primary, Arizona Democrats were allowed to vote over the Internet for four days, at polling places from home or from work. As a result voter participation rose to 86,907, compared to only 32,072 in 1992 and 12,844 in 1996.[29] However, the Arizona experiment was not without problems. Voters encountered technical problems when they tried to vote online, and a high volume of participation caused the site to go down for an hour on the first day. In the first 24 hours of voting, 100 people called for technical assistance because their web browsers would not allow them to vote through a secure server, and the technical support center had so many calls that some voters received a busy signal.[30]

Both electronic and Internet voting, carry security risks. They can create new problems (equal access to the Internet) or simply change the form of current problems (a confusing paper ballot can become a confusing online ballot). Any electronic system must maintain the integrity of every ballot. Each vote should be unalterable once cast.[31]

However, Internet voting systems pose special problems. They must be designed to protect the secrecy of the ballot, and to provide an audit trail that can be used to conduct recounts of election results.[32]

Viruses and denial-of-service attacks (in which a hacker sends so many requests to the host server that legitimate Internet traffic cannot get through) are also real concerns with Internet voting, because they could change the outcome of an election. Votes could be stolen, lost, or changed, and networks could be clogged with false requests, keeping legitimate voters from submitting their ballots. It is also difficult to secure third-party computers, such as those in schools or community centers that are not owned by the voter or the county. Until the security issues are resolved, large-scale Internet voting may not be practical.

Benefits of Electronic and Internet Voting

Electronic and Internet voting can reduce costs. The research of Votehere.net, a company that offers Internet voting services, shows that counties nationwide spend $1 billion a year on equipment for election day.[33] Electronic and Internet voting can cut costs by reducing the amount of paper handled and reducing the need for some of the other equipment. Internet voting also can save money by eliminating the need for some poll workers and equipment at polling places, as more people vote from home or alternative locations.

Electronic and Internet voting also may increase voter participation by providing greater flexibility in when and where voters cast their ballots. Electronic or Internet voting machines can store all versions of a county’s ballots, allowing voters to cast ballots outside of their precincts at the location most convenient to them. Internet voting can give better access to certain groups, such as the disabled or rural residents who may have to travel long distances to polling places. A poll by ABC News found that 61 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds support Internet voting, and their interest in this form of electoral participation may bring out younger voters who tend not to go to the polls.[34]

Electronic and Internet votes also take less time to tabulate. Electronic votes are saved on a cartridge that can be read quickly by a computer, and Internet votes can be counted continuously throughout the day. These methods also can help prevent common voter mistakes. Electronic and Internet voting can prevent spoiled ballots by notifying users when they have double-voted in a race or if they have skipped a race.

Recent Examples of Electronic Voting

El Paso County uses an electronic touch-screen system similar to an ATM for early voting. At this writing, the county has 136 devices, but would need 600 more at a total cost of $3 million before they could replace their punch-card system for election-day voting (assuming the use of three to four of the devices in each of the county’s 155 precincts). The electronic system has worked well, and a citizen survey found enthusiastic support from senior citizens. The system is bilingual and user-friendly for the blind. With its many checks and balances, the system eliminates many vote-counting problems. El Paso anticipates that using the system for early voting will save the county $30,000 annually.[35]

In Riverside County, California, all ballots except absentee ballots were cast on touch-screen computers in the November 2000 elections. Voters inserted an activation card into the machine and selected their choices by pressing a spot on the computer screen. The votes were recorded on a cartridge that is removed after polls close and taken to a tallying center. Because it is a closed system, not connected to the Internet, it is not susceptible to hackers or outside tampering. The election proceeded with only a few glitches, that were due to election workers’ unfamiliarity with the system, rather than technical problems with the machines.[36]

Riverside County paid more than $13 million for 4,250 touch screen machines to be placed at 715 different locations.[37] The elimination of most paper ballots, however, saved the county $600,000 in the November 7 election alone.[38] The new system also makes it easier and quicker to tabulate votes via computer. Two hours after the polls closed, 75 percent of the county’s ballots had been counted, compared to the 23 percent at the same time of day after the March presidential primary. In addition, the electronic system prevents spoiled ballots by notifying voters of mistakes, such as voting for more than one candidate in a single race, and allows voters to correct their mistakes.[39]


A. State law should be amended to authorize the Texas Secretary of State (SOS) to standardize balloting in Texas elections.

The Texas Election Code should be amended to provide the SOS with greater authority to establish more uniform designs for ballots under all voting systems used in Texas. All voting authorities should be required to post their ballots for public inspection both in the courthouses and on county Web sites and submit samples to the SOS Elections Division for review and comment.

B. State law should be amended to require the SOS to conduct a study of existing and feasible election methods.

This study should determine the usefulness, suitability, accuracy, fairness, and feasibility of all voting systems now used or potentially usable in Texas. It should summarize outcomes from past elections, common errors for all voting methods, and suggestions for improving the overall election process. Particular attention should be paid to implementing affordable electronic systems for the maximum possible number of Texas counties. This study should consider the possibility of adopting a uniform system for the State of Texas. The SOS should be required to report its findings and recommendations to the 2003 Legislature.

C. The SOS should compile a database of best practices for conducting elections.

The database should include information collected from election inspectors, officials who conduct elections, and other appropriate sources. The database should be included on the SOS Web site.

Fiscal Impact

Local voting authorities should be able to post ballots for citizen and Secretary of State review at minimal cost, using existing resources. Where possible, ballots should be posted for inspection on the Internet, unless the voting authority lacks the necessary technology to do so.

The election method study and the best practices database would require an appropriation to SOS of $75,000.

Savings/(Cost) to the General Revenue Fund


[1 ] Federal Elections Commission, “About Elections and Voting: The Administrative Structure of U.S. Elections, Voting Systems”(http://www.fec.gov/elections.html). (Internet document.)

[2] Interview with Melinda Nickless, director of Election Administration, Office of the Texas Secretary of State, Austin, Texas, November 15, 2000.

[3] Texas Election Code, §1.002(a) and 1.005.

[4 ] Texas Election Code, §121.001 et seq. and 122.001 et seq.

[5 ] Texas Election Code, §52.061(a) and 121.003(1)-(3).

[6] Texas Election Code, §123.001(b).

[7 ] Texas Election Code, §122.001(a).

[8] Texas Election Code, §122.001(c).

[9 ] Texas Election Code, §122.002.

[10 ] Interview with Melinda Nickless.

[11 ] Gary Chapman, “Online Voting, Even if Secure, Won't Solve Election Troubles, Los Angeles Times (November 15, 2000).

[12] Texas Weekly, “More Numbers than Sesame Street,” November 20, 2000.

[13 ] Texas Election Code §127.130.

[14 ] Texas Weekly, “More Numbers than Sesame Street,” November 20, 2000.

[15] Texas Election Code §52.031-52.034, 52.061-52.071.

[16 ] Texas Election Code, §52.091-52.094.

[17 ] Texas Election Code, §52.002.

[18 ] Texas Election Code, §52.065-52.068.

[19] Texas Election Code, §124.062.

[20] “Editorial: Balloting Process Needs Quick Update,” San Antonio Express-News (November 15, 2000) (http://www.hearstnp.com/san_antonio/bea/news/stories/san/storypage.cfm?xla=saen&xlb=132&xlc=124779&xld=130). (Internet document.)

[21 ] T.A.C. Administrative Code, Title 1, Part 4, Chapter 81, Subchapter C, Rule §81.54.

[22] Interview with Ann McGeehan, deputy secretary for elections, Texas Office of the Secretary of State, Austin, Texas, November 15, 2000.

[23] Texas Secretary of State’s office, “Certified Device List” (http://www.sos.state.tx.us/elections/laws/certifications.shtml). (Internet document.)

[24 ] California Secretary of State, Internet Voting Task Force, Internet Voting Report (Sacramento, California, January 18, 2000), p. 2.

[25 ] Texas Election Code §101.001 et. seq.; 105.001 et. seq.; 106.001 et. seq.; 86.001 et. seq.

[26 ] Robert Gehrke, “Internet absentee voting an attempt to help Americans overseas,” Associated Press & Local Wire,” November 4, 2000.

[27 ] Texas Election Code, § 63.001-§64.001.

[28 ] Robert Gehrke, “Internet Absentee Voting an Attempt to Help Americans Overseas,” Associated Press & Local Wire, November 4, 2000; and Brian Fonseca, “Remote User E-Ballot: Casting a Shaky Proposition,” InfoWorld Daily News (November 7, 2000).

[29] “Arizona ‘Ahead of its Time’ in Online Voting?” Digital Beat (March 30, 2000) (http://www.benton.org/DigitalBeat/db033000.html). (Internet document.)

[30 ] Rebecca Fairley Raney, “From the Keyboard, Arizonans Cast Votes.”

[31] California Secretary of State, Internet Voting Task Force, Internet Voting Report, p. 37.

[32 ] California Secretary of State, Internet Voting Task Force, Internet Voting Report, p. 4.

[33 ] Rebecca Fairley Raney, “Casting Ballots Through the Internet,” New York Times (May 3, 1999) (http://www.nytimes.com/library/tech/99/05/biztech/articles/03vote.html). (Internet document.)

[34 ] Gary Langer, “Virtual Voting,” ABCNEWs.com (July 21, 1999) (http://www.abcnews.go.com/sections/politics/DailyNews/poll990721.html). (Internet document.)

[35] Telephone interview with Helen Jamison, elections administrator, El Paso County, Texas, November 16, 2000.

[36 ] Tom Verdin, “Riverside County Voters Whip Through Computerized Ballots,” Associated Press State & Local Wire, November 7, 2000.

[37 ] Tom Verdin, “Riverside County Voters Whip Through Computerized Ballots”; Scott Gold, “High-Tech Riverside Voting in Spotlight,” Los Angeles Times (November 9, 2000); and Thomas Elias, “California County Goes to Touch Screens for Voting Results; Rural Area First to Eliminate Paper,” Washington Times (November 5, 2000).

[38 ] Scott Gold, “Riverside County Voters Go Electronic,” Los Angeles Times (November 8, 2000).

[39 ] Scott Gold, “High-Tech Riverside Voting in Spotlight.”

e-Texas is an initiative of Carole Keeton Rylander, Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts
Post Office Box 13528, Capitol Station
Austin, Texas

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