Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, February 2, 2024

Hamilton readies for election with new equipment

Election Systems & Software’s new DS300 machine will greet Hamilton County residents who arrive at a polling location to vote in the March 5 election. - Photo by David Laprad | Hamilton County Herald

Hamilton County residents might have been able to enjoy a year without elections in 2023, but Administrator of Elections Scott Allen and his 15-member crew at the county’s Election Commission had anything but a slow 12 months.

After nine years with the controversy-embroiled Dominion voting machines, Hamilton County spent a nearly $2 million grant from the secretary of state on new voting machines from Election Systems & Software.

Allen says his office did exhaustive due diligence on the company’s DS300 machines before purchasing them with the blessing of the federal government and the state of Tennessee. His staff and election workers are learning how to use the equipment ahead of the March 5 presidential preference and Hamilton County primary election.

Here, Allen discusses what the county’s 230,000 voters can expect when they step up to one of the new machines, as well as a myriad of other topics that surround the upcoming elections in 2024.

Your office had a year off from elections in 2023. What is the atmosphere there like as you prepare for 2024?

“Everyone is excited to be back in an election season. We upgraded our internal system and purchased new voting machines last year, and we feel good heading into 2024 after laying all of that groundwork.”

Where is your office with its preparations for the March 5 election?

“We’re training our officers for the polling places. We have about 400 people coming through basic training. After that, we’ll start machine training. We’ll be bringing in officers and machine judges from each precinct for hands-on training on the new equipment. We’ll do our best to fully train our workers and vet all of the equipment to ensure it’s running properly so we have accurate results in Hamilton County.”

How will your office ensure accuracy in this year’s elections?

“Our office is responsible for the security and testing of the new voting equipment, which the federal government and the state of Tennessee had to approve before we could purchase it. The machines also have to meet several security standards and undergo rigorous testing. We have a third-party auditor who comes in before and after an election to ensure the machines are counting correctly and the results are accurate.

“Until this year, a postelection audit could not include any count of voted ballots because sealed ballots could be opened only by a court order in the case of a challenge. But certain audit standards will go into effect later this year that will allow a hand count of paper ballots to ensure the machine read them correctly.

“Before an election, we create a test deck, mark the ballots A, B, or C, and then run them through the machine to see if we get the same output. We test every machine in our office, and a third-party auditing firm certifies that those machines put out what we put into them.”

Did your office experience any inaccuracies with the Dominion machines?

“We never experienced any issues in Hamilton County that would call into question our confidence in Dominion’s equipment. However, we’d had them since 2014, and the life span of voting equipment is usually eight to 10 years. So, we were due for an upgrade.

“Many of the issues we heard regarding Dominion equipment surfaced from a different setup than ours. That version of their machines uses a ballot marking device, which is essentially a touch screen. Voters touch a screen to make their selections, the machine prints out their selections on a piece of paper, that piece of paper is scanned through a machine, and the machine reads the barcode.

“Our Dominion machines used hand-marked paper ballots. You colored in ovals and then slipped the ballot through the machine, which read the ovals. There were no barcodes. Every audit we had since 2014 was clean.”

Why did you select Election Systems & Software as your new machine vendor?

“ESS were the most responsive to our request-for-proposal. Their machines are in 23 other Tennessee counties, so we have the support of other election commissions in the state who have experience with their equipment. By the time we decided to move on from Dominion, we were their only customers in the state.

“We went up to Davidson County, which has the same ESS machines, during an election there last year to learn more about them. We also received letters and recommendations from several counties in the state who have had ESS machines for a number of years, and they all had good things to say about the equipment, its reliability, and the ease of use for poll workers.”

Is the user experience different in any way?

“The user experience is very similar. We’ve had different machines throughout the years, but the voting process has always been the same. A person completes the application, signs the poll book, receives their paper ballot, sits down in a booth with a pen, and colors in the ovals next to their choices.

“When a voter walks up to the new machine, it’s going to be the same process. The machine has a larger color screen and it reads ballots faster, but they’ll still insert their ballot, the machine will scan it, and then the voter will place it in the ballot box. After that, they’ll receive their ‘I Voted’ sticker and they’re out the door.”

“Consistency for voters is important. They’re not to walk and have to vote on a touch screen. It’s still going to be a hand-marked paper ballot that’s run through a scanner.”

Security is another concern after some voting centers received threatening letters containing traces of fentanyl, according to reports from The Associated Press. What are you doing to ensure the safety of your workers?

“No election commissions in Tennessee have reported receiving those letters, but we’re still taking precautions. That’s the biggest change since I’ve been in elections. We now have hotlines to Homeland Security and the FBI to express any concerns. Our biggest challenge this year other than being prepared to run the elections will probably be physical security.”

What about voter security?

“We’re not taking any extra security measures that will be visible to the public, but we will be doing things in the background to make sure voters stay safe at our polling places. We also have great law enforcement in this community that’s aware of these challenges, and they’re ready to assist us any way they can.”

“We’ll also have about 20 Election Day inspectors circling around four to five precincts apiece on Election Day. They’ll be checking in with the officers to see if they’ve seen anything suspicious and report back to this office. They’ll essentially be our eyes and ears in the field.”

Is AI a concern for your office?

“Yes, because it can do a lot harm. An AI could take my voice, call the local news media and say, ‘This is Scott at the election office. We’ve canceled the election for Tuesday and moved it to Saturday.’ So, we’re trying to develop good relationships with the local news media so they know to verify anything that sounds off.”

How does your staff manage to remain impartial while it administers an election that could impact their lives in one way or another?

“We have a great mix of Democrats and Republicans in this office, but we’re here to serve the candidates and the voters, regardless of their party affiliation. We place the candidates on the ballot, and we help the voters to cast their votes.

“We have our personal beliefs and candidates we support, but everyone is good at setting their favorite candidates and political beliefs aside when they step into this office. We want both sides to get a fair and honest shake and to address any issues that come up.

“However an election turns out, no one here has met a candidate worth going to jail for.”