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Top Texas election official acknowledges threats to voting secrecy

By means of Natalia ContrerasVotebeat and The Texas Tribune

Rules and practices intended to promote transparency also create vulnerabilities for voters, lawmakers were told.

A top state election official acknowledged that Texas’ efforts to increase election transparency have made it easier to break ballot secrecy and discover how some people vote.

In testimony before state lawmakers Wednesday, Christina Adkins, the elections division director for the Texas Secretary of State’s Office, confirmed reporting this week from Votebeat and The Texas Tribune showing that the choices voters make at the private voting booth can be identified later in some cases. use public, legally available documents. Lawmakers and county election officials have made such data more easily accessible in recent years.

Adkins also confirmed that election officials and the Texas Secretary of State’s office were concerned about the possibility of voting secrecy being compromised.

“What we’ve found, and I think what a lot of election officials as a community have been very concerned about, is that as we’ve increased this level of transparency, this information has become easier to discover,” Adkins said.

She added: “It’s not just a feature on a ballot. It’s usually a combination of data, maybe some information about polling stations and where people vote, combined with the precinct number on that ballot paper.”

Shortly after the November 2020 election, when former President Donald Trump and his allies promoted baseless theories that his reelection loss was caused by voter fraud, public records requests related to the election increased. Applicants were often asked to inspect original ballots, ballot images and cast ballot records – electronic records of how voters voted.

During the 2023 legislative session in Texas, lawmakers, responding to pressure from conservatives seeking greater access to election data, overwhelmingly passed House Bill 5180, giving the public access to that data just 61 days after Election Day .

Earlier this month, an independent news site published what it said was former Republican Party of Texas Chairman Matt Rinaldi’s vote cast during the March 5 GOP primary. The site did not fully explain how the ballot image came to be linked to Rinaldi, who has neither confirmed nor denied that it was his ballot.

Votebeat and the Tribune were able to verify and replicate a series of steps to identify a specific person’s voting choices using public records. But to protect the secrecy of the vote, the two news outlets do not detail what precise information is needed, or what process is used to match ballot images to individual voters.

Adkins said the availability of election data is intended to promote “trust and accountability” in elections.

But she acknowledged, “The more data you put out…, and the more granular and granular that data becomes, the more likely you are to encounter voting secrecy.” And what we see now is that conflict between transparency and secrecy.”

In any case, some lawmakers have said the state should reexamine what it makes public and how so that voters’ voting choices remain secret, an essential aspect of free elections meant to guard against voter intimidation.

State Sen. Brian Birdwell, a Republican from Granbury, asked Adkins if his vote could be accessed through public records requests.

“You should be able to check the name, but not see the ballot,” he said.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Republican from Houston, acknowledged that in other states, information from very small districts is being aggregated into larger ones “to basically protect the voter from being pigeonholed by what happened in this case.” Bettencourt said he believes the Legislature would take bipartisan action to allow election officials to do so.

However, such action is unlikely to happen before the November elections. State lawmakers won’t begin debating and voting on new legislation until January.

But at least some witnesses said Wednesday they don’t want access to election data rolled back.

“If you don’t show it to us, how are we ever going to know if this is a legitimate vote or a legitimate voter?” asked Beth Beisel, a Dallas pollster and proponent of hand-counting ballots.

Election officials could redact more information in the public records, making it more difficult to associate a ballot with a specific voter. Under the law, county election officials are already required to redact identifying information in election documents, such as Social Security numbers, state-issued identification numbers and phone numbers. But Adkins said they can do more if necessary.

“What we thought was personally identifiable information is much broader than what we envisioned and what election officials originally envisioned,” she said.

The discussion on the issue Wednesday was part of a series of meetings the Senate will host this week. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick released a list of 57 issues for Texas Senate committees to study in preparation for next year’s legislative session, including election security and the county’s polling place program.

The Senate committee hearing lasted well into the evening Wednesday as lawmakers also heard public testimony on other issues. The committee will report its findings and make policy recommendations before the end of the year.

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