Texas Election Management System Works out Flaws

Texas' new centralized voter database will streamline elections records, but some county election managers lost faith after the rollout.

by / July 21, 2008

When the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) was signed in 2002, it promised to nudge the nation's voting procedures into the 21st century by eliminating paper ballots and streamlining the technology behind voter records. HAVA set off a mad rush in state offices to compile a single list of all counties' registered voters.

Five years later, Texas met the federal deadline with the Texas Election Administration Management (TEAM) system, a Web-based tool built by IBM, with software from Austin-based Hart InterCivic Inc., which also developed the eSlate electronic voting system that replaced paper ballots in Texas and other parts of the country.

Administered by the Texas Secretary of State's office, TEAM promised to replace county-level voter registry software - saving money and offering an array of tools for slicing data.

Instead the system caught a wave of bad press after a few county officials complained about slow response times and dropped voters. A state audit found widespread dissatisfaction with TEAM among several Texas counties, some of which purchased their own software to keep elections running smoothly.

Some county officials predict November's presidential election will bring record-breaking voter turnout. While developers and state officials say TEAM is up to the challenge, the stakes are high as county officials watch how their voter rolls are managed.

Deadline Met, Problems Fingered

Streamlining data from hundreds of counties - many of which still operate their own systems - has been a massive undertaking for Texas. A tough federal deadline and a database that dictates who is eligible to vote added pressure to TEAM's implementation. It's a similar process to what agencies statewide are going through to bring online a more responsive, efficient and centralized generation of systems to handle massive amounts of data.

The original plans envisioned a system that would surpass the HAVA requirements and incorporate GIS mapping, image storage and data analysis. TEAM's goal was to provide a Web-based elections management solution for every county.

"To go from 254 voter registration lists at the county level to one statewide list is a huge undertaking," said Scott Haywood, spokesman for the Secretary of State's office.

Developers began building TEAM in 2004 as a customized version of Hart InterCivic's Java-based eRegistry elections software, with an Oracle database system, housed on IBM servers. The timeline left developers two years before the first federal HAVA deadline. A cohort of 15 Texas counties tested TEAM's features and rooted out bugs in mock elections. After receiving a one-year extension from the federal government, Texas successfully met its new deadline by rolling out TEAM in January 2007.

"You ask IT professionals and they would've wished for more time to get this stuff in place," said Justin Levitt, counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. Levitt has watched HAVA implementation around the country and said that while there have been kinks in many systems, the HAVA timetable was "appropriately aggressive," especially after publicized election troubles, such as the infamous Florida recount in 2000.

"Having one statewide list of computerized voters is a big deal," Levitt said. "A lot of people expect that on the day of delivery, a product is going to be working properly. I'd be shocked if that happened. I haven't heard of a system where rollout 1.0 has worked at lightning-fast speed."

The TEAM implementation was no exception; the new system immediately frustrated some county officials. The system allowed updating up to 40 voters at a time, but from some local offices, form submissions of more than a few voters at a time became time consuming or were dropped outright.

"It was not user-friendly at all. It was slow," said Carolyn Craig, elections registrar of Henderson County. Craig said she and her co-workers struggled with their daily updates to the

state voter roll. She said the state tried to fix Henderson County's problems with TEAM, but any service improvements were short-lived. "They worked on it, they would get it better, and it would get worse again," Craig said. "Every election time, you could count on having a heck [of a time] getting the lists we needed for reporting."

Counties Find Alternatives

Henderson County is currently one of 39 so-called "offline" counties that match voter rolls daily with TEAM, but don't use the system for any other elections management. Craig said Henderson County runs its voter reports on software from Waxahachie-based Southwest Data Solutions.

"We had to start a statewide riot to get their attention," said Galveston County Tax Assessor and Collector Cheryl Johnson, one of TEAM's most outspoken critics. "We pleaded for them to take the system down." Johnson said her office found the old system, the Texas Voter Registration System, more effective, and the switch to TEAM dramatically slowed the voter update process. "It has increased our workload," she said.

In Travis County, trouble with TEAM surfaced as eligible voters were dropped from the county rolls because they appeared as residents of other counties. It looked like a confirmation of skeptics' worst fears - the new election technology was disenfranchising voters. Dolores Lopez, director of voter registration for Travis County, blames an imperfect match in the data fields as records flew back and forth between TEAM and Travis County's own management system, EZ Access, produced by McAllen-based Hamer Enterprises. Like most large counties in Texas, Travis County continues to run its own management software, syncing records daily with TEAM.

Tarrant County was one of the largest counties using TEAM in early 2007, but Elections Administrator Steve Rayburn said the county "jumped ship and went offline" shortly after the state switched to the new system. "That was in the early days, when they were having a lot of problems," he said. Tarrant County manages its 910,000 voters using San Diego-based VOTEC Corp.'s Election Management and Compliance System.

Audit Tabs Problems

With county officials complaining and dropping TEAM for their own third-party solutions, the state auditor's office took a detailed look as the May 17, 2007, elections unfolded, and followed up with a survey sent to all the state's 254 counties. The results suggested there was plenty of room for improvement; it detailed inaccurate records, poor system performance and lax security controls for access to the central rolls.

The audit also found security problems at the local level: Passwords for the system weren't managed securely onsite, and multiple users within county offices had access to the administrator login, making it difficult to track who was tinkering with the voter lists. Auditors suggested tighter security controls be built into TEAM at a state level.

Auditors found nearly 50,000 voters, out of 12.4 million in the state, who were in the database but may have been ineligible - about half were possibly felons and half may have remained on the rolls after death - though auditors couldn't confirm any of the ineligibles had actually voted.

A survey of county elections officials made it clear that after five months using TEAM, local users were unimpressed. (However, most counties reported a better experience than Galveston and Travis counties.) But the responses to the survey's last question made it clear TEAM was far from the revolutionary solution promised in early press releases. When asked, "Does the TEAM system allow you to do your job effectively?" the answer from 106 counties was "no."

TEAM Huddles for Fixes

By the time the audit report was released in November 2007, TEAM administrators had already responded to auditors' recommendations with a handful of fixes and acknowledged the need to fix other areas. The Secretary of State "generally agrees" with the recommendations, the final report said,

though it cautioned against a system that removed voters from the rolls too quickly. "While it is important to purge the system of ineligible voters, it is equally important to ensure that valid and eligible voters are not removed," read the summary of the Secretary of State's response.

First, TEAM developers turned their efforts to the basic usability problems of slow connections and dropped requests. "We sent two people out on the road to counties where they said it's too slow," said Hart InterCivic spokesman Peter Lichtenheld. "After getting some negative feedback from the county users, we looked at the environment, configurations and connectivity."

"We still have counties that are using dial-up, and when you have a Web-based system with that many users on it, it's just going to be slow," said the secretary of state's spokesman Haywood. "We wanted to take that issue off the table." The state offered counties grants to beef up their IT infrastructure, which were reimbursable through federal HAVA assistance money.

The bad publicity that dogged TEAM in late 2007 has since gone away, and Haywood said TEAM performed well in recent elections, especially in the March 2008 primary. "Our approach over the last year has been to make sure the HAVA-required features are working as well as they can be," Haywood said. "Once we have that stable, we'll continue to develop add-ons to the system."

Little will change in the system from now until the presidential election this fall, though Haywood said Hart InterCivic and IBM will continue working with the state to fulfill the initial promise of TEAM's features. TEAM will also be part of a statewide data migration project managed by IBM, Unisys, Pitney Bowes and Xerox, known as the "Team for Texas," which will centralize information storage with the Texas Department of Information Resources.

"They have improved tremendously, but we're still not at 100 percent of the speed under the old system," said Galveston County's Johnson. She also said her office is still waiting on TEAM to deliver the features she was initially told to expect. Without GIS mapping from TEAM, Galveston County is paying for additional mapping software to analyze elections. The confidentiality features in TEAM - to keep police officers' home addresses out of the public record, for instance - haven't worked either, Johnson said, so her office manually deleted that information.

"We're keeping our hats on and our heads down, but we're having to work a lot harder than we used to," Johnson said. "I think someday this will be a wonderful system."

Problems with dropped voters - confusion about address records and voters who moved between counties - were addressed individually, often at the county level. In Travis County, Lopez said her office mailed notices to 9,000 people who may have been dropped inaccurately. Lopez said 800 people responded to confirm their eligibility and were able to do so without missing an election. The dropped voters, she said, were a product of switching to the new system - a problem that hasn't repeated since.

"While everyone realized it would be a challenge to create this list, I think it was larger than anyone realized," said Haywood. "The further we go into HAVA, the smoother things are going."

Lawmakers' sense of urgency in bringing about election reform is partially what made building TEAM so difficult. Now that it's in place, Haywood said constantly tweaking the system would make it hard to iron out minor problems and build confidence among county users. In Texas counties, he said, "They really need an opportunity to grow comfortable with the way elections are being run."

"Given that the system is really only a year and a half old, given that by law it had to be put together quickly, it seems pretty natural that these things would

work themselves out over time," said the Brennan Center's Levitt. "These are massive, massive new pieces of infrastructure."

As important as voting is to all Americans, Levitt said, we spend little money on the elections process, a burden that worsens as political engagement increases, as it has this year. "We tend to do elections on the cheap, and we get what we pay for. We have built a system that often isn't equipped for the sort of turnout we're seeing now," Levitt said.

"Having these records computerized really helps counties deal with the influx of people," he said. "Once they're up and running, it makes administration of elections much easier in the long run."

Levitt said the biggest challenge that states such as Texas face in bringing new systems online and troubleshooting them - in an arena as sensitive as elections management - is the public's expectations. "It's unrealistic for it to be 100 percent smooth from the get-go," he said. "But from the voter's perspective, it does have to be 100 percent smooth."

Patrick Michels Contributing Writer
Patrick Michels is based in San Francisco and Austin, Texas. He writes for Government Technology, Texas Technology and Emergency Management magazines.