After two years of planning and preparing, Bexar County has taken the first step toward acquiring new voting machines.

County commissioners on Tuesday instructed the Elections Department to negotiate with Election Systems & Software (ES&S) and give commissioners price options in one month.

Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacque Callanen and Bexar County Purchasing Agent Mary Quinones started the process of finding new voting machines in 2017. The current machines used in Bexar County were purchased in 2002 from ES&S, Callanen said, and voters have used them to cast more than 7.5 million votes in more than 450 different elections.

Chris Moody, director of sales at ES&S, explained that like the current machines, the new voting system provides a touchscreen to vote. But as Congress and the Texas Legislature have both proposed requiring paper records of ballots in future elections, the voter’s choices would be printed out on a ballot card. The printed ballot is then scanned and officially counted. The printers provided use thermal printing technology, which eliminates the need to buy costly ink cartridges.

Most importantly, the machines from ES&S are certified on both the federal and state level, Callanen said.

Moody said ES&S also would provide a high-speed central scanner, which would save money and manpower when counting absentee ballots. The scanner also could sort ballots by races if a recount was called, instead of requiring election workers to look through ballots manually, Moody said.

Several Bexar County citizens voiced their support for new voting machines but also their concern for potential flaws. Susan Korbel, president of the Bexar County Voter Protection Coalition, asked commissioners to ensure their choice would offer voters the most security. Coalition member Ruby Perez, who tested the ES&S machine, noted there were issues with when trying to vote in Spanish.

“I noticed that the paper ballot did not print in Spanish,” she said. “The bilingual feature needs some work, so I consider it a flaw. I believe the Latino community will not be satisfied with that until the issue has been addressed.”

Callanen promised her team would ask ES&S to address that issue.

County Commissioner Chico Rodriguez (Pct. 1) said his biggest concern was making sure voters were familiar with the machines before using them in an actual election. He asked if it were possible to allow voters to see the new machines at least three times before the March 3, 2020, Super Tuesday presidential primary.

“We’re going to have one of the biggest elections in 2020,” Rodriguez said. “For us to say we’re only going to show it one time before the November election is a big issue because there will be long lines.”

Moody said ES&S could provide a machine for the public to see at each of the 41 early voting sites in May. Callanen said she would work to display them in subsequent elections before November, when she hopes to roll out the new machines for voters to use. The Elections Department also would do public outreach to familiarize voters with the new machines before the official switch.

Switching to new machines also gives Bexar County the ability to transition into using vote centers for elections. Callanen said the model, which allows voters to vote anywhere in the county on Election Day, would ensure voters’ ballots are counted at any precinct on Election Day. Right now, if a voter wants to vote at a poll site to which they are not assigned, their ballot is considered provisional.

“Sixty percent of those [provisional] votes are not counted if that person doesn’t go to their precinct,” Callanen said. “With the vote centers, that goes away.”

The Elections Department could implement the vote center system by this November, Callanen said.

“So if you voted in one place, your name would be marked across the county so you couldn’t vote somewhere else,” she explained. “We have that capability now.”

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.