Two large black banners billowed outside the Tarrant County Administration building. Their request was directly aimed at the county judge: “Whitley: Ditch The Machines.”
Inside, the March 26 meeting was packed, with some observers forced into overflow seating outside the Tarrant County Administration building, 100 E. Weatherford Street. The room was split ideologically between those who see elections as secure and reliable and those who have suspicions about the efficacy and security of elections in Tarrant County.
“We’re all here because the right to vote is precious,” Julie Griffin, a recently retired social studies teacher who is supportive of Tarrant’s election process, said at the meeting.
Elections across the country, including in Tarrant County, recently underwent forensic audits. No evidence of widespread voter fraud has been found that would have influenced the election results.
Still, a group of concerned residents has questions about how the county can ensure elections are as secure as possible. Some asked to return to hand-marked ballots counted by hand and for additional access to machines to perform checks on their security — steps that Heider Garcia, Tarrant County elections administrator, described as cumbersome and unnecessary.
Garcia and Troy Havard, assistant elections administrator, walked the audience through a presentation on the elections process in Tarrant County, including how elections are run, the cost of running an election, and how the county ensures its elections are secure.
“We follow the law,” Garcia said at the meeting. “You often hear that integrity is doing the right thing when no one is watching. I would add, integrity is doing the right thing even when it scores points not to.”
A group called Citizens for Election Integrity Texas has one primary request: Allow the group to access election equipment and take two forensic images of voting equipment.
By taking two forensic images, the group contends it would be able to go back and see what changed, if anything, throughout the course of the election — including in the hardware and software of the machines themselves.
Allowing outside groups access to voting machines would put Tarrant County elections at risk of being tampered with, Garcia said. The access required to take a forensic image before and after an election would make the system vulnerable to changes, or the installation of a malicious virus, harming the integrity of the voting machines.
“If I ask you to make a forensic image of your phone, at the time when I’m reading it to extract the data, I can also write to it,” Garcia said. “So there’s a window of risk there.”
The group insists the forensic image is not risky.
“We’re not saying anyone is doing sinister things in our county. All we’re asking is to ensure, by inspecting… that the great work that we’ve heard about isn’t in vain because we have voter manipulation electronically,” Dan Bates, a lawyer who works with the elections integrity group, said at the meeting.
The group points to a case in Mesa County, Colorado. The county’s administrator, Tina Peters, allowed an unauthorized person to access Mesa County’s Dominion voting machines and make copies of the machine’s hard drives, Colorado Public Radio reported.
The hard drives were posted online, potentially compromising election systems in Colorado, said Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, a Democrat, in a lawsuit against Peters. Tarrant County does not use Dominion voting machines. Tarrant County uses Hart InterCivic voting systems.
Peters, who is running for Colorado secretary of state, is now under a federal indictment for the breach and has been charged with obstructing an officer. Mesa County’s machines were decommissioned after the image was taken, with state officials calling it a security breach.
By allowing an outside source to access Tarrant County’s voting systems, Garcia could open himself and Tarrant County up to the same risks.
“It’s incredibly risky to do something like that,” Garcia said. “And, if I give one person access to the machines, I have to do it for everyone.”
During the meeting, Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley offered a solution: Get the Texas Secretary of State’s office to OK a program allowing a state-approved agency to take a forensic image of the machines or furnish $14 million to replace the machines if the forensic images cause the state to decertify them.
“I’ll let them do whatever they want, but if it causes our machines to be decertified, we’re keeping the $14 million,” Whitley said. “So whoever wants to step up and write the check…”
Access to paper ballots
The group also wants to analyze the result of Fort Worth’s 2021 municipal elections. Tarrant County is required by state election code to store all the paper ballots from every election under lock and key for 22 months after the votes are tallied. The state allows access to the ballots only under certain circumstances including recounts, election contests and criminal investigations.
After 22 months, anyone can access the ballots through a public information request. Those ballots will be scanned in for anyone to access for free. Members of the public also can physically inspect the ballots in the election administrator’s office.
“The good thing is, once you get your hands on those ballots, you’ll be able to triple validate that they add up to the same thing — and then we’re done,” Garcia said
An audit of the 2020 general election, ordered by Gov. Greg Abbott, legitimized elections in Tarrant County. The audit found no evidence of widespread fraud. The small amount of voter fraud revealed would not have significantly affected the results of the 2020 election, auditors concluded.
Although much of the praise and criticism from commenters focused on the elections administrator, it takes much more than one person to run an election, Garcia said. From voters and volunteers to top state officials, everyone has a role to play, he said.
The secretary of state, a Republican who the governor appointed, interprets the election code and certifies voting equipment. The majority-Republican Tarrant County Commissioners Court funds the Elections Administrator office and chooses voting equipment from a state-approved list.
The Tarrant County Election Commission, which is currently composed of four Republicans and one Democrat, recommends the hiring and firing of the elections administrator. The election commission includes:
- The Tarrant County judge
- County clerk
- Tax assessor-collector
- The Republican Party chairman
- The Democratic Party chairman
The election board, also dominated by Republicans, appoints members of the ballot commission and approves the procurement of election supplies.
Both the Republican and Democratic party chairs play a large role in local elections. They appoint election and ballot board judges, select voting locations and decide whether to have a joint primary.
The 75 local entities that make up Tarrant County order elections and post notices. Finally, the elections administrator maintains the voter rolls, executes elections and prepares an annual budget.
Election equipment and supplies
Tarrant County is the third-largest county in Texas. When elections are administered, voters’ addresses often overlap with different voting districts and precincts. In any given election, there could be up to 3,200 different ballot designs. The elections administrator is tasked with ensuring all voters get the ballot they need, while also allowing as much flexibility as possible in where they vote.
Tarrant County is a member of the voter centers program. The program, which the Texas secretary of state operates, allows voters to vote at any polling location in the county — a process similar to early voting, which is required by state law.
Tarrant County’s voting machines are not connected to the internet. When poll locations close, election workers transport two thumb drives with voting data from their polling place to rally sites. At the rally sites, elections administration staff upload data from one thumb drive, to be sent over the internet, to the elections office to be tallied into the unofficial server. This allows the office to get an unofficial count of the votes up as soon as possible.
The other thumb drive contains the official results used to certify the election, which is typically tallied in the days following an election. This data is put into a sealed bag and never makes contact with the internet. Instead, they are manually transported on a thumb drive to the elections office where they are copied into the official server.
Every vote counted by a machine is backed up by a physical piece of paper.
“You cannot hack paper; I cannot say it enough,” Garcia said. “When we audit elections, we read the name marked on the ballot.”
To make the vote centers program possible, Tarrant County must use electronic poll books. Electronic poll books, which the county started using in 2021, allow voters to show up at a polling place and check in to receive their correct ballot. After the voter checks in, their information is sent to every other polling place to assure they don’t vote again at another location.
Critics take issue with electronic poll books and point to them as proof Tarrant County elections are connected to the internet. That’s not quite right though, Garcia said. Despite the poll books being connected to the internet, it contains no sensitive information. All the information found within the poll book — voter names and addresses — is also a matter of public record, whether it is electronic or not.
Once voters check in, they receive an access code and a blank piece of paper, which serves as their ballot. When voters make their selections, the machine marks the paper ballot and assigns a barcode, which the ballot counting machine reads and uses to tally the votes. The paper ballots can then be used to legitimize the results of the elections through hand counts, which are done after every election.
Some critics take issue with this entire process, advocating instead to get rid of vote centers and revert to hand-marked ballots tallied by hand at precinct-level voting locations. Over 800,000 ballots were cast during the 2020 general election.
Hand-marked ballots aren’t feasible in a county this size, Garcia explained. The number of man-hours and resources it would take to move the county to hand-marked paper ballots aren’t reasonable or realistic, he contends.
Hand-marked ballots would require the elections administration to purchase a ballot for every registered voter, which would be exceptionally costly. Hand-marked ballots also open up election counts to be marred by human error, Garcia explained. If voters mark their ballot incorrectly, it opens their vote up to scrutiny and could throw the results of an election into question, he said.
Unused blank paper fed into a voting machine, Tarrant County’s alternative to hand-marked ballots, saves the county money by allowing it to be repurposed for ballots in the future. Voting machines assign a serial number to the ballot after the paper is fed into the voting machines in a process called dynamic numbering.
Dynamic numbering is more secure than pre-numbered ballots, election officials argue. It makes it harder to simply duplicate ballot number ballot numbers and switch out legitimate votes with ballots that favor a candidate of choice.
Critics argue dynamic numbering presents a security risk because it makes it impossible to track ballots after they’ve been cast, critics said. Secret ballots are important to the integrity of democracy, Garcia said. If government officials are able to track who an individual citizen voted for, it could put them at risk of retaliation.
“My question is, how do we know which numbers are used for the ballot? How do we know there are not duplicate ballots?” one commenter asked.
This concern is addressed because the printed number includes a sequence that identifies the machine it came from, allowing auditors to ensure only ballots printed by sanctioned machines in polling places are counted.
“I just think that Tarrant County deserves better than being 20 to 30 years late in evolution,” Garcia said. “I don’t see why voters should have more limitations in where they can vote. I don’t understand why we have to have more potential for miscounts.”
Garcia’s personal history
Garcia joined the Tarrant County Elections Administration in 2018 after the bipartisan election commissioner hired him. He was hired after the Commissioners Court fired his predecessor. Commissioners would not address why the previous administrator was fired, explaining it was a personnel issue that is not required to be disclosed.
Garcia has a background in computer engineering and has worked for Smartmatic. Through his role with Smartmatic, Garcia has worked in Venezuela and Panama, according to Gacia’s Linkedin. Garcia helped to execute nationwide elections in Venezuela during his 12 years with the company.
Venezuela, which was rated “Not Free” by FreedomHouse.org, used Smartmatic machines starting in 2004. While Venezuelan elections were found to be corrupt through undue political pressure and the use of state funds for campaigning, these issues were not the fault of Smartmatic, Forbes reported.
Smartmatic calls itself “ the global leader in applied cybersecurity technologies for elections and government systems,” on its website.
It provides voting systems to countries and states in the U.S. and abroad. Garcia left the company in 2016 to become elections manager in Placer County, California, before arriving in Tarrant County.
Critics have questioned his time working for Smartmatic. One commenter at the meeting accused Garcia of interfering with elections in the Philippines. Smartmatic is not in use in Tarrant County or in Texas. Tarrant County uses machines from Hart Intercivic, one of two voting machines approved by law in Texas.
These personal attacks are not worth his time, Garcia said.
“Tarrant County has bigger things to worry about,” Garcia said. “I can’t change who I am. I am proud of who I am.”
Most of the concerns brought up at the county meeting did not point to any specific instance of fraud that would change or overturn election results. The state found elections were secure after it audited the 2020 general election in Texas’ four largest counties.
Tarrant County also conducts routine checks of the accuracy of its own elections. By testing a random sampling of ballots, those tests have affirmed the counts are more accurate using the new machines compared with the county’s previous voting equipment.
The status of an individual’s voter registration can be put under suspension or canceled by Tarrant County Elections. Unless they have cause, elections officials are not permitted to remove a voter from the voter rolls or registration lists, even if they haven’t voted in many years.
Voters are suspended if their registration is called into question after they are convicted of a felony or reports of undeliverable mail.
Voters will be completely removed from the roll if they send a request to be removed, or the county clerk or city reports them as dead; the secretary of state has them registered to vote in another county; or they are purged in a process defined by the election code.
Residents have to provide an address when they register to vote. In some cases, that address will not be a home or apartment; it could be a group home, homeless shelter, or post office box. There is a specific set of circumstances that allows voters to register at a location other than their home.
Certain employees of the state — police officers and judges, for example — can request a protected address. Poll books, which are public and include addresses of voters, can pose a security risk. When a public employee requests to have a protected address, it will show up as a “protected address” in the poll book. In some cases, the Texas Department of Public Safety will assign people an alternate address for their driver’s license, which gets forwarded to the elections administration.
Protected witnesses or victims of domestic violence have their addresses protected, too. No one knows the address of these voters, and they are not allowed to be included in the poll book.
Multiple commenters raised concerns about the status of voter registration rolls and pointed to examples of residents registering to vote using the address of homeless shelters and nursing homes.
Other concerns centered around the length of time voters are allowed to stay on the voter rolls despite choosing not to vote for decades. One speaker, Dayna Oliver, serves as a precinct chair. She sent out a mailer, resulting in hundreds of undelivered letters, she said.
“The voter rolls here are not clean,” Oliver added.
It would be against state law to remove registered voters from the rolls without cause, Garcia said. Also, the mailer is not reliable evidence of issues with Tarrant County’s voter rolls. Mailers could be bounced back for multiple reasons aside from the recipient being dead or living outside of the county, Garcia added.
Two meeting attendees asked what could be done when poll workers consistently make mistakes or intentionally violate election law.
On Election Day, political party-appointed electioned judges run polling places. When elections officials receive a complaint about an election judge and determine the mistake is recurring or intentional, they report it to the parties. If the parties choose to do nothing, the election administration can’t do anything about it.
The Tarrant County Elections Administration has the most control over poll staff during early voting. Early voting clerks report directly to Garcia, who fires on average one clerk a year if the mistake rises to the level of dismissal.
Poll watcher Amie Super asked commissioners: How many reported incidents of an election worker violating election law is required before the person is removed from the poll site?
It depends on if the violation is intentional, Garcia said. The first time poll workers make a mistake, they are reminded to pay close attention to training and make adjustments going forward, he added.
“There’s a level of, did this (person) make a mistake? Or is this (person) intentionally refusing to do something. That’s important,” Garcia said.
Another misconception mentioned during the meeting was voting machine’s vulnerability to foreign attacks. Tarrant County’s voting machines, and all their components, are made and assembled in Texas — decreasing the risk of foreign influence.
Despite security measures, there are potential weak points in Tarrant County’s election system. Electric connections in wall outlets and vulnerabilities in the manufacturing process could be cause for concern, critics said. Paper ballots are the solution to any potential vulnerability, Garcia said.
Tarrant County has ample safeguards in place, Garcia said, to prevent hacking before it happens, including hashcodes and encryption. If those fail though, Tarrant County also has a mechanism for detection — paper ballots.
“The detection mechanism is the paper that is publicly available,” Garcia said. “I understand the concerns because to mess with an election, you don’t necessarily have to change it. You have to attack it so we can’t finish it, or you can create a perception that something went wrong.”
Come November, Garcia hopes the voter education exercised at the forum will pay off by building confidence in the electoral system among Tarrant County voters. People don’t have to trust him alone, Garcia said.
“The integrity of election results is all on paper.”
Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.