As a voter, elections can appear straightforward.
Walk up to a voting machine, make your choices, print your ballot, scan it and you can go about your day like normal. Nearly 166,000 Tarrant County voters did just that for the May 1 election.
Behind the scenes, though, it’s a much more complicated process — one that can change depending on the type of election. Officials plan and execute weeks of work to get everything in line so residents’ voices can be heard.
Tarrant County Elections Administrator Heider Garcia said municipal elections — such as the one earlier this month and the upcoming June 5 runoffs — are different than those run by the county in November.
“Each city is contracting us, but they are the canvassing entity,” Garcia said, referring to the process a political subdivision’s governing body, such as a city council, goes through to finalize election results. “They make a lot of decisions that, in November elections, the county would make, like polling places and things like that. There’s a little bit of administrative work that changes behind the scenes to set it up.”
In a November election, such as the upcoming constitutional amendment election or the gubernatorial race next year, a county’s commissioners court would canvass the results.
All Tarrant County cities, school districts and other entities have the county government administer their elections. It cost the city of Fort Worth $149,938 to run its May 1 election, according to city records.
The best way to think of municipal elections, Garcia said, is that the county is facilitating them on behalf of those entities.
Early voting: May 24-30 and June 1
Election Day: June 5
Local governments receive candidates’ filing documents and verify eligibility then tell the county how to spell candidates’ names and the order to put them on the ballot. After Heider’s office has all of that information, he will generate ballots and send it back to the entities so they can double check it and verify it is correct.
The May 1 election had 163 individual contests, according to the county. Managing all of those races is not difficult, Garcia said.
“Once you get over that first part of coordinating with all of the entities to get the data on time and get to the public test … it’s pretty much a standard process, the same one we would if it were a countywide election,” the Tarrant County elections administrator said.
With all of that in hand, Heider said the next step is to conduct a public test of the election.
“What happens is that the law requires that we set up every machine that’s going to be used in the election, and we need to see and run a vote for every candidate in every precinct,” the Tarrant County elections administrator said. “Basically, we test every possible option a voter can select and make sure the system is tabulating right.”
Tarrant County uses the Hart InterCivic Verity Voting System. It is a hybrid system that combines the ease of voting on an electronic machine with the security of a paper ballot. The county switched to these machines in 2019.
“You go to a touchscreen, choose your options, get a print out that is not counted yet, review it, and then go to a scanner and put it in the scanner to get it counted,” Garcia said.
Tarrant County is part of the secretary of state’s countywide polling place program that allows voters to cast a ballot at any voting center in their county on Election Day. Of the 254 counties, 76 participate in the program, according to the Texas Secretary of State’s office.
To be in the countywide polling place program, the state requires a county must use a hybrid voting system at all polling locations, have an electronic log of registered voters that can check if a person has voted and it must hold a public hearing before joining. Once a county meets those terms, it must apply and send a letter from its county judge.
Tarrant County was approved for the program in 2019. Previously, voters could cast their ballots at any location only during the early voting period.
“That’s one of the big improvements we’ve had in the last three years,” Garcia said. “If you live in Arlington, but you happen to be working in Bedford, you can still go into a polling place and get your ballot.”
During the test, Garcia said the county has a set number of test ballots that are run through each machine.
“Not only is it logically tested, we set it up right then it’s also physically testing each machine to make sure there’s no, ‘Oh my God, this scanner was broken and we didn’t realize it,’” he said. “Everything’s tested before it goes out.”
After the public test, Tarrant County delivers the voting equipment to early voting sites.
Tarrant elections ‘very secure”
The elections administrator described Tarrant County’s voting system as being “very secure.”
“No. 1, it’s not connected to anything, which kind of does away with 99% of the theories because it’s not an online system,” Garcia said. “The machines — both the ones that print the ballot and the ones that scan it — they’re completely disconnected (from the internet). They don’t have any kind of wireless modem or internet access or anything. They don’t literally have the hardware to connect to anything.”
Texas law requires voting machines to not be connected to the internet. It is just one of numerous mandates the state has to ensure elections are secure.
Ahead of early voting and election day, each piece of equipment is sealed and recorded so the county can track when the machines leave its warehouse and arrive at a polling place. Workers at the voting site validate each machine’s seal numbers, Garcia said.
“It’s kind of like your yogurt — don’t use if the seal is broken. Same principle. It has to be sealed,” he said. “It has to come back sealed or you don’t want to use that (machine). You don’t want to eat that yogurt.”
The voting system here also has a paper trail that election officials can follow in case the machine counts are off.
“Every ballot that’s cast is reviewed by each voter, so they are checking that, you know, my ballot says, ‘I want to vote for John Doe and it says John Doe,’ and they’re putting it in a scanner,” Garcia said.
The paper ballots also are used during the county’s random post-election manual audit. A subset of precincts are counted by hand to ensure the ballots match the computer-tabulated tallies, Garcia said.
‘They have their crew’
Poll workers are typically appointed by the Tarrant County political parties. The local Republican and Democratic parties appoint election judges and alternates and they pick their clerks, Garcia said. Judges are appointed for a year.
Even though the May election is nonpartisan, the party-appointed judges still operate vote centers.
“They know the locations. They know the precincts. They have their crew,” Garcia said.
All poll workers must go through the state’s training program. It details everything a worker needs to do, including opening and closing polling places, processing voters, how to submit a ballot and counting ballots.
The number of poll workers depends on the election and number of vote centers. For the presidential election in November, Tarrant County had more than 2,500 people working at 335 polling locations, Garcia said.
At the end of early voting, all of the voting equipment goes back to the county government. The ballot board will remove the drives that contain the counts and insert those figures into the tally system, Garcia said.
“That’s why we’re able to, at 7 p.m. on election night, no matter what election it is, post only early voting counts,” the elections official said.
As early voting occurs, people are returning their mail ballots, which are sent 45 days before the election. Once returned, the mail ballots go to the ballot board and are verified to see if they meet the requirements to be counted. If they are, they are scanned and counted at the end of early voting. Those figures are released at 7 p.m. on Election Day.
“For Election Day, as polling places close and they bring down their equipment, we incorporate their numbers into the count and that’s why you see us saying through the night, ‘Here’s another batch. Here’s another batch. Here’s another batch,’” Garcia said. “It’s really hard to predict when they’re going to be done. If there are a lot of people in line they’re going to have to wait for them. If the lines are pretty short, then they get done earlier.”
‘Wait and see’
Some election laws may change by the end of this month. Republican lawmakers are moving ahead with legislation to implement new restrictions on voting.
Both chambers of the Legislature have approved different versions of Senate Bill 7. They are expected to hash out their differences in a conference committee behind closed doors.
The Senate’s version restricts early voting rules, bans drive-thru voting, eliminates extended hours voting and requires large counties to use a formula to redistribute polling sites. The House’s approved bill does not include any of that, but keeps a ban on counties from sending vote-by-mail applications to residents who did not make that request.
Tarrant County is monitoring the proposals, Garcia said.
“We’ll just wait and see what comes down at the end, and see how we adjust our processes to them,” Garcia said. “That’s pretty much where we are right now.”
If lawmakers ask for feedback, Garcia said he is prepared to do that. He said he would detail how their bills would affect elections in Tarrant County.
“Our job is to do what the law says,” Garcia said. “Just keeping an eye on anything, trying to anticipate what it would mean for us in terms of our operation.”