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Hidalgo-County-SealThe first day of early voting for the March primary, Benito Garza attempted to vote in favor or Rene Guerra; however, every time he attempted to check off Guerra’s name, it would check off another candidate.

He went back to the beginning of the ballot and started again. The same thing happened, and he requested help from election officials, and it took two people to cancel his ballot, so he could start on a new machine. He eventually was able to vote for his preferred candidates.

Garza detailed the experience in an incident report that is now at the center of a countywide controversy over whether the electronic machines have been maliciously tampered with or have otherwise malfunctioned.

Garza’s account is backed up by an affidavit signed by Richard Alvarez, executive assistant to the Hidalgo County judge. In Alvarez’s affidavit, he states Feb. 18 he received a call that there was a problem in Pct. 3. Alvarez went to the site and recommended the election judge set aside the machine Garza was using until it could be examined to find the cause of the malfunction.

However, the election judge notified the elections department, which sent out an information technology person who recalibrated the machine and put it to use once again, Alvarez’s affidavit states.

‘What makes this one unique’

Six candidates in the primary now are contesting the election, alleging that votes cast for one candidate went to the opposite candidate either because of malfunctions or illegal manipulation.

Those contesting the election are Marla Cuellar, a candidate for the County Court-at-Law No. 8; Mari Regalado, who ran for State Representative, District 36; Rey Ortiz, a candidate for 92nd District Court Judge; and three candidates in the race for Justice of the Peace, Pct. 2 Place 2: Hortencia “Tency” Martinez, Elvia Rios and Paul Vazaldua.

District Attorney Rene Guerra, who lost his bid to keep the position but did not file a contest, asked 398th District Judge Aida Salinas Flores to impound the machines immediately after the allegations of possible fraud surfaced, and she signed an order doing so. Even with the machines used in the democratic primary out of pocket, Elections Administrator Yvonne Ramon said there are still enough machines available for the upcoming city and school board elections and the primary runoff election.

Hidalgo County Commissioners Court held a special meeting last week to discuss hiring a forensic analyst to look at the machines for signs of tampering. Four bids received were all over the $50,000 threshold; in fact, they topped $100,000, according to the purchasing agent, meaning the county would have to request proposals for the service, which would take a minimum of 45 days.

“I’ve been involved … for the last 20 years in election cycles, and in every one of them, we’ve had people complaining about different things, irregularities occurring in elections,” said County Judge Ramon Garcia.

“What makes this one unique is very clearly the fact that we have an individual that’s allegedly involved, a county employee with intimate knowledge of how the voting machines work and who may have had access to the voting machines, who we also allowed to be out there actively campaigning as a campaign coordinator.”

A letter sent to the court from Martin Golando, an attorney whose firm is representing several of the candidates, states his clients have evidence the same employee allegedly admitted to manipulating the 2006 election.

‘Highly unlikely’

But Commissioner Joseph Palacios said he spoke to the county’s IT director, who said the IT system and the voting systems are not integrated.

Elections Administrator Yvonne Ramon pointed out the machines are not on Wi-Fi or the Internet. They are stand-alone machines, so a hacker would have to access each of the machines to manipulate votes.

Also, she said, the machines are kept under lock and key. Everyone in her department is subject to criminal background checks, Ramon said.

“It would have to be an incredible conspiracy because the source codes and the passwords are not even given to us,” Ramon said, adding that if a machine goes down, the county has to contact Election Systems & Software to come open the machine to fix the problem.

Duncan Buell, a computer science engineer with the University of South Carolina, has been studying the use of electronic voting machines in elections since 2006 when he first started hearing about the controversy surrounding the machines. At that time, the controversy was over the quality of the software.

Buell has offered to look at the information from the Hidalgo County primary to determine if there were any errors in the county, and he’s waiting to hear back from the district attorney’s office.

“I will not be able to detect if someone broke into the machines and inserted rogue tallies. I can look at whether the machines were working properly. I think that has been valuable in improving the process here,” Buell said.

‘It’s a complicated system’

Buell’s written computer code that goes through all the checks and balances of the machines, and while he said he’s seen just about every human error that can be made, he’s never found a case of purposeful manipulation.

In 2010 in South Carolina, Buell and a couple of other programmers took the data from the state election and each did their own analysis.

“We didn’t find an instance of fraud,” Buell said. “We didn’t find any instance of massive problems in the thousands. All of the possible errors you would expect people to make on a busy day when they’re tired, they made.”

South Carolina uses the same electronic voting machine as Hidalgo County. They’re iVotronic machines from Election Systems & Software. They record votes in two ways: there’s a there’s a personal electronic ballot, or PEB, that election officials use to collect totals at the end of the day, and there’s a memory card inside each machine that records every single vote by every single voter individually.

Each polling site is given a hand-held device to record the PEB votes. An election official goes to each machine and infrared technology transmits the total votes to the device. They’re only supposed to use one device, Buell said, but sometimes two are used and only one device’s data makes it into the master count. However, if someone were to check the memory cards directly, he’d be able to get an accurate count.

In Hidalgo County, that kind of error should be caught because the number of votes recorded from a precinct wouldn’t match the number of people that signed in to vote.

“It’s a complicated system. The number of votes cast should equal the number of total votes on the vote record, which should equal the PEB,” Buell said. “I can get counts of the number of votes in at least three ways.”

Problems in South Carolina were exacerbated by the fact that not all counties were pulling their memory cards. For example, Buell said, Charleston County could only give 10 percent of its data to Buell after an information request.

After Buell got involved with the League of Women Voters and the issues were brought to light, the state went back and did its own investigation, Buell said. Now he said, a similar audit is required every year to make sure errors aren’t overlooked.

“Statewide, things got a lot better,” Buell said. “The process was greatly improved, and I credit this to someone was actually looking over the shoulders of the county administrators.”

As for allegations in Hidalgo County that recalibrating the machines may have destroyed votes or evidence, Buell said all of it shows up in the machines event log. Also, he said, if someone touches the machine on a corner and then attempts to click a candidate’s name with the other hand, the machine averages the distance of the two points that are touching it and may check a different name.

If the county sends him the data, Buell said the first thing he would check is whether all candidates on the machines’ spreadsheets line up properly on the county’s master spreadsheet. The system’s software puts the machines’ spreadsheet on top of the county’s spreadsheet, and if any candidates are off, they’ll off set totals for every candidate underneath that line.

“It’s easy to imagine that somebody might have been left off one of those ballots,” he said. “If you get to the cast vote record, that would be correct. It’s more of a problem with primaries than general elections because there are more candidates.”

Buell didn’t completely rule out the possibility that the machines could be hacked. He recalled a study where a team of graduate students studying computer science demonstrated how they could use a palm pilot to trick a machine into thinking the palm pilot is a PEB and upload fake votes.

“But it’s not something J. Random person at the help desk could do,” Buell said.

‘Pandora’s box’

Meanwhile, the county discussed at length the possibility of hiring an expert before deciding Tuesday that the issue would best be addressed through the court system.

Commissioner Joseph Palacios said the county shouldn’t be the entity investigating the allegations when there are agencies like the Secretary of State and the Attorney General’s Office.

“We’re about to open a Pandora’s box on any complaint or any letter that comes into us on irregularities, fraud, tampering, and all of these things,” Palacios said. “I’m concerned about the accusations but I really believe there are some agencies out there to look into this.”

The 398th District Court has impounded the machines and a separate judge will preside over the election contests.

Plus, District Attorney Rene Guerra said he planned to convene a grand jury Thursday, March 27, to determine if there was criminal activity.

“We will ask a district judge to appoint one or more experts if necessary, which will be paid through a fund accumulated over 30-some-odd years,” Guerra said, referring to forfeiture funds.

“I believe that’s due process,” Palacios said.

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