Tarrant County approves use of pre-numbered ballots. Do they prevent voter fraud?

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The Tarrant County Election Board Tuesday approved an initiative to use pre-numbered ballots in the general election in November.

In a briefing to the county commissioners ahead of the board’s vote, Tarrant County Election Administrator Clint Ludwig said that pre-numbered ballots would increase election security and allow for more accurate auditing in the case of voter fraud inquiries.

The practice, however, is outdated, largely unused by electoral authorities elsewhere in the United States and, contrary to proponents’ claims, could actually facilitate voter fraud, rather than prevent it, according to legal, political and computer science experts.

Ballots in Tarrant County already receive a unique identifying number at the moment of voting, and adding more identifying information to voters’ ballots could potentially make it easier for bad actors to commit fraud like vote buying and voter coercion, according to David Kimball, a political scientist and ballot design specialist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

“The best thing preventing vote buying is the secret ballot,” he said in a phone interview.

Ballots in federal elections are available for public viewing for 22 months after the election. If a person’s vote is tied to a specific number, then someone who has bought or coerced votes could use the pre-numbered ballot list to confirm that they got their bribe or intimidation obtained the desired result.

Kimball said that pre-numbering ballots is “extremely rare” in the United States and that most ballots cast in the country have no identifying numbers at all on them.

“I don’t know that anybody does it,” he said. “You want the ballots to be anonymous.”

Andrew Appel, a computer scientist at Princeton University who has done extensive research on voting machines, pointed to the same risks associated with serial numbers on ballots.

“The secret ballot is pretty important as a principle, since well over 100 years ago, to prevent people from being paid or coerced to vote a certain way,” he said in a phone interview.

The best way to prevent ballot stuffing and other types of fraud mentioned by proponents of pre-numbered ballots is to staff polling places with a sufficient number of adequately trained election workers, Appel said.

“The standard practice is to have enough confidence in your poll workers and to pay enough attention to poll worker training,” he said, adding that staffing polling places with multiple election workers is another age-old tactic for avoiding fraud. “One dishonest poll worker can’t stuff ballots, because there’s another poll worker that can keep an eye on that.”

Does Tarrant County need pre-numbered ballots to prevent voter fraud?

The board’s vote to use pre-numbered ballots raises the question: Does the problem it is meant to solve even exist?

While Tarrant County polling places saw a bit of the usual election day hiccups on Super Tuesday — things like equipment problems and long lines — aside from an issue with accommodations for voters with disabilities, the March primaries largely went off without a hitch.

An open records request to the Tarrant County Election Integrity Task Force asking for any instances of voter fraud or voter interference during the primary election returned no responsive records for either election day or early voting.

Glynis McGinty, head of the district attorney’s arm of the task force, told the Star-Telegram in February that her office was considering only three cases of possible voter fraud from 2023.

The Election Board is comprised of County Judge Tim O’Hare, Tarran County Election Administrator Clint Ludwig, Sheriff Bill Waybourn, Republican GOP Chair Bo French and Democratic Party Chair Cystal Gayden. Gayden cast the one vote against the initiative.

How will pre-numbered ballots work in Tarrant County’s general election?

Voters currently use blank thermal paper ballots made specifically for the Tarrant County voting equipment, which are made by Hart Intercivic. The machines create a unique identifying number in the moment that the vote is cast.

Ballots will continue to be identified this way, but they will now also be consecutively pre-numbered. These pre-numbered ballots will serve as placeholders to help election auditors, Ludwig said.

“If somebody decides they want to audit that election and they want to audit those ballots, when they see ballot 53 and ballot 55, they can find a blank piece of paper that has the serial number 54, and so, now they know 53, 54, 55, and they can audit and see that and hold it in their hands,” he said.

The change to pre-numbered ballots is not meant to bring Tarrant County into compliance with the state election code, as the ballot on demand system complies with election law, Ludwig told the commissioners.

The Texas Election Code requires consecutively numbered ballots, however, the Texas Secretary of State issued an advisory in 2019 allowing for alternate methods of ballot numbering.

One person who spoke in support of the measure during public comments said the Texas Secretary of State abused its authority in waiving this statute. However, the election code states that the office “may prescribe more specific requirements and standards, consistent with this code, for approval of particular kinds of voting system equipment or voting system equipment generally.”

The statute in the current election code requiring pre-numbered ballots is from 1985, but the practice of numbered ballots dates to 1905, a time when those prohibited from voting included “idiots and lunatics,” “all paupers supported by the county” and even members of the military.

“Sequential numbering is a law that was passed when we were close to a century away from electronic voting, and there are multiple safeguards built into the system,” said Susan Hays, an Austin and Alpine-based attorney who is board certified in campaign and legislative law. “To demand this expensive change now it’s just blowing up the bridge after it’s been built, and people are crossing it.”

How much will pre-numbered ballots cost?

Public comments against the initiative cited excess costs associated with it, as any unused pre-numbered ballots would have to be thrown away after an election.

“The use of pre-numbered ballot stock will not improve the accuracy of Tarrant County elections, but rather will add unnecessary bureaucracy and significantly increased costs,” said Janet Mattern of the League of Women Voters of Tarrant County.

Both ballot numbering schemes require the county to buy enough paper for every registered voter in the county, just under 1.3 million. Using numbers from the 2020 election, O’Hare and commissioner Alyssa Simmons estimated that the county would have to throw out around 400,000 unused pre-numbered ballots.

The expense would be around $13,000 for the tossed out ballots, “give or take a couple of thousand either way,” O’Hare said.

In February, O’Hare opposed a $10,000 expenditure to reimburse Trinity Metro for giving voters free rides to polling places on primary Election Day.

O’Hare declined to speak with members of print media following Tuesday’s Election Board meeting.

Noah Alcala Bach contributed to this report.