Texas county scrambles to replace e-voting machines destroyed in fire

Harris County officials hope to have at least 3,100 machines by election day

Officials in Harris County, Texas are scrambling to find replacement e-voting machines for this year's gubernatorial elections after a massive fire last week destroyed all 10,000 machines originally scheduled for use in the polls.

The pre-dawn fire, the cause of which still remains a mystery, destroyed a 28,000-square-foot warehouse in which the machines were stored, and caused close to $40 million in damages, according to a report in the Houston Chronicle .

Harris County Clerk Beverly Kaufman told the Chronicle $30 million of the loss was tied to the voting equipment while the remainder stemmed from damages to the building. The e-voting machines were slated for use in 736 polling sites for the Nov. 2 elections and for early voting, which runs Oct. 18-29.

Harris County encompasses the city of Houston and bills itself as the largest county in the U.S as well as the largest one to adopt e-voting technologies. The county has been using e-voting machines since 2001.

The eSlate systems destroyed in the blaze were designed by Hart InterCivic, an Austin-based manufacturer of voting machines. The legal-pad sized system features a rotary wheel that allows voters to navigate through the ballot and make their choices. Voters can choose between English and Spanish when using the system.

In addition to the e-voting hardware, the fire also destroyed judge's booth controllers that generate access codes for voters to use in accessing their ballots and tabulating the vote count at the end of the elections.

Hector DeLeon, spokesman for the Harris County Clerk's Office, today said that county government officials are working diligently to find replacement machines in time for both the early voting and for Election Day.

At a meeting this week, county officials approved a plan to acquire about 3,100 replacement units, DeLeon said. In addition, several nearby counties have offered e-voting systems to help Harris County out. Most of the systems that have been offered by other counties have been judge's booth controllers, he said.

The goal is to equip all 37 early voting locations with the previously planned numbers of voting machines for each location, he said. In the last major election in Harris County, about 62% of the voting took place during the early voting phase, and the goal is to have enough equipment in place to handle that level of traffic.

On Election Day, the county will equip each of the 736 polling stations with at least one e-voting machine to comply with the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, he said.

Every piece of equipment, whether it is new or on loan will have to go through an acceptance testing process to ensure that it is functioning properly and that all votes cast will be counted as intended, DeLeon said. As a precaution, Harris County will also make available about 1.4 million paper ballots on Election Day.

"We are doing the best we can. I think we'll be okay," DeLeon said.

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com .

Read more about it in government in Computerworld's IT in Government Topic Center.

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