Tarrant County residents lined up Tuesday to cast fake votes during a public election test.
It’s Katherine Hagood’s first time to participate in such a venture. She won’t be at the elections administration building when the final results come back, but Hagood said she has concerns about election integrity, and wanted to make sure she did her part by participating in a test of the county’s system.
“My concern would be that there are people who are not registered to vote who are voting, or people stuffing the ballot boxes for certain candidates,” she said.
People like Hagood are exactly who Tarrant County election administrators are hoping to win over. The March 15 test is the second one the county has held in the past seven months; the first, hosted in September, had a low turnout but positive results.
While Texas state law mandates annual public tests of the election systems, Tarrant County is unique in that it allows third parties (i.e. residents) to fill out ballots and submit them for the test. The ballots had a red stamp reading “sample ballot,” and participants marked them however they wanted using two voting machines. There was also a drop box where participants could turn in absentee ballots. Mistakes aren’t just allowed — they’re encouraged to test the capabilities of the system.
Election administrators Heider Garcia and Troy Havard hope allowing Tarrant County residents to cast their own mock ballots, and watch the process in real time, will help build trust and confidence in the election system.
“Tarrant County elections and the county made a decision last year to try to do something like this to help foster public confidence in the results and process of the election,” Havard said. “One of the easiest ways to do that was to invite the public in.”
Tuesday’s voters tried any number of strategies to trip up election workers; some signed their ballots in crayon, while others under- or over-voted. One woman tried to enter a completely empty ballot. Others filled out ballots in English, Spanish and Vietnamese, and scrawled their names in illegible handwriting.
Duane Hamman was one of several members of the ballot board in attendance. Those on the ballot board are responsible for making sense of ballots that aren’t read properly by the machines.
“I think it’s great, we need more people to come,” Hamman, a Libertarian precinct chair, said. “We do as well as any large county could do.”
Hamman works alongside Republicans and Democrats on the ballot board. David Lambertsen, a Republican member of the board, said the group works because — not in spite of — the partisan representation.
“It works well because we all have the same goal,” Lambertsen said. “We might have disagreements on how we get there, but we all want the same goal.”
Tarrant County has been held up as a gold-standard for election integrity in Texas. State audits have reaffirmed the county’s election security across multiple years, including 2020. Garcia in particular has been heralded as a shining example of an elections administrator, even among traditional elections skeptics.
Despite those distinctions, the county has created an election integrity unit, headed up by sheriff’s deputies. The unit’s creation was announced in early February.
“I’ve seen a bunch of election authorities,” Lambertsen said. “I’ve been on the ballot board since 2011, and this is the best crew of election administration we’ve had by far.”
By the end of the mock test, the county had once again proven its prowess.
Of the 107 ballots submitted, 57 were read by the machines. Another 48 absentee ballots were verified by hand through the work of the ballot board, and a single provisional ballot was verified by hand. Those in attendance worked together to hand-count and verify the vote counts at the end.
“Now go back and tell people how much work this hand-counting is,” Lambertsen joked to those assembled.
Emily Wolf is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org 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.