Imagine casting your vote on an everyday touch-screen tablet that prints out a paper copy of your ballot, as well as a take-home receipt you can use to verify it was counted.

Such a system could be in place at Travis County polls as early as 2017.

For the past three years, the county and a group of experts have been designing the specifications for new voting software that would rein in costs while providing what critics of electronic machines have long requested: a verifiable paper trail.

“You can never win the argument over black box voting,” said Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir.

Under the system being developed, a voter would use a device — likely a tablet — to fill out an electronic ballot and then print out a paper copy for voters to check. The electronic ballot wouldn’t be tallied unless the voter deposited the paper copy into a ballot box that scans a serial number printed on it. The voter would also receive a receipt with a code that can be entered online to confirm the ballot was counted.

DeBeauvoir compares the code to a FedEx tracking number that not only tells the sender that his or her package arrived but also indicates “whether the contents of the package arrived intact and undisturbed.” The code only gets activated when the paper ballot lands in the ballot box.

DeBeauvoir also envisions a system that saves money. Rather than running the software on voting machines that can cost $3,500 to $4,000 apiece — not to mention the roughly $250,000 a year on maintenance costs and licensing fees — the county plans to buy off-the-shelf hardware, such as tablets, that can run for less than $1,000 apiece, she said.

Building what the county calls STAR Vote — the acronym stands for Secure, Transparent, Auditable and Reliable — will take $8.5 million, DeBeauvoir said. Travis County, which plans to hire a vendor to build the software by the end of the year, hopes to split the development portion of the cost with other Texas counties, she said.

What the county is doing — crafting its own voting system rather than leaving it up to one of a handful of voting machine vendors — is a first, DeBeauvoir said.

California’s Los Angeles County is in the midst of a similar effort, and the voting systems that the two counties develop could be adopted by other jurisdictions around the nation, said Pamela Smith, president of the nonprofit Verified Voting, which advocates for accurate and transparent elections.

“Those are going to be game changers, really, for how we look at voting systems in the country,” Smith said.

After Florida’s balloting problems in 2000, the federal government infused local jurisdictions with money for new electronic voting machines. Federal funding under the Help America Vote Act and grants paid for 90 percent of Travis County’s voting system more than a decade ago.

Now, some voting machines are reaching the end of their life spans, but such federal funding is no longer available.

Travis County knew this day was coming. In 2009, DeBeauvoir convened a group of about 45 people to study election issues, and they wrapped up a report that made one thing clear: They wanted a paper trail.

DeBeauvoir turned to the market to look for voting machines but didn’t see anything she liked, so she decided to develop her own system. To date, Texas hasn’t certified any voting machine that creates a paper trail, Texas Secretary of State spokesman Jeff Hillery stated in an email.

Travis County’s current machines aren’t perfect, Smith said. Often, the paper ballot copy appears behind a screen, and some voters aren’t careful enough to fully vet it, she said. The paper rolls also need to be replaced fairly frequently, she said.

Critics of Travis County’s electronic voting system said it provided no paper trail for auditing votes or verifying them in the event of a recount, and filed a lawsuit in 2006 that the Texas Supreme Court ultimately dismissed. Nelson Linder, president of the Austin branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and one of the voters who filed the lawsuit, applauded Travis County for the new voting system it’s developing.

“It’s a little late, but it’s still very important,” Linder said.

Pete Lichtenheld, vice president of operations at Hart InterCivic — which supplies Travis County’s current voting machines — said a refresh of voting technology is on the way, whether it originates in the public or private sector. He’s not worried that county development of voting systems will chip away at his company’s business. After all, Lichtenheld said, even if a county designs a customized system, someone needs to build it.

©2014 Austin American-Statesman, Texas