County commissioners approved the purchase of new voting machines, agreed to move toward a voter center model for the November election, and gave the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office the go-ahead to negotiate for body cameras.
New Voting Machines Purchased
County commissioners unanimously approved a $12.9 million agreement for new voting machines and 10 years of maintenance support. The commissioners gave Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacque Callanen and Bexar County purchasing agent Mary Quinones the authority to negotiate the contract with Election Systems & Software (ES&S) back in March.
The commissioners also approved $537,067 to buy tables and carts to transport the new voting equipment, as the machines will not fit in the old carts, Quinones explained.
“These old carts that will no longer work for our new equipment, we already worked out that we will be metal recycling those,” Quinones said. “So we’ll get a return on our investment.”
ES&S will accept the old machines, which gives Bexar County some trade-in discount on the new machines as well. The county purchased the old machines 17 years ago, Callanen said.
The new machines have a touch screen and will give voters largely the same experience they already have with the machines used today, Callanen said. But now, the machines will provide a paper copy of their ballot.
“It prints out a card, and it shows you every person you voted for,” she said. “Then [voters] take that card after they validated it and put it in a scanner.”
The paper copy allows the elections department to refer to paper votes in case of a recount, Callanen said.
Voters can see the new machines at all early voting sites for the June 8 runoff. Early voting starts May 28 and runs through June 4.
Vote Anywhere in Bexar County in November
Commissioners voted against leasing extra scanners for a year, an option that would only be necessary if the county intended to keep all precinct poll sites open for future election days for the next year, Callanen said. By not leasing extra equipment, commissioners effectively adopted the voter center model, where voters can go to any location on election day to vote.
Voter centers are also known as super precincts. The Texas Legislature first allowed Lubbock County to try using super precincts in 2006 and expanded the program in 2011 to allow counties to implement super precincts in countywide election precincts.
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County Judge Nelson Wolff called Callanen the state’s most knowledgeable elections administrator, and lauded the elections department for the move toward voter centers.
“While the Texas Legislature does its best to suppress voting, I think we took a major step today to encourage voting,” he said.
Callanen said the department aims to cut the 300 or so precincts that are currently open on election day to 260. Wolff expressed his amazement at the prospect of more people, unhindered by precinct location, voting on election day.
“That’s never been done,” he said. “That, to me, would be a great help to getting voter turnout.”
Body Cameras Company Chosen
Commissioners also gave the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office approval to negotiate a contract for body and dashboard cameras with Axon, a company from Scottsdale, Arizona. The county has been trying to use body-worn and in-car dashboard cameras for years, adding funding for cameras to the commissioners’ 2016 budget after two deputies fatally shot a 41-year-old man.
James Serrato, assistant chief deputy and chief of staff to Sheriff Javier Salazar, assured commissioners that accidental and purposeful video deletion would be very difficult to accomplish on Axon cameras.
“The policy and camera system allows us to set thresholds for users and permissions so only the absolute top users – the administrators – would be able to do that,” he explained.
Salazar added that if an unauthorized user deleted video footage, they would face criminal charges for tampering with evidence.
Serrato said he did not have an estimate for how much the cameras would cost. The contract the sheriff’s office is pursuing with Axon would be for 550 cameras.
Commissioner Tommy Calvert (Pct. 4) abstained from voting on the item and said he did not feel that Axon was the best choice. The sheriff’s department also evaluated cameras from the Dallas-based company WatchGuard.
Sheriff Deputies Overtime Approved
Salazar also requested pay for 43,000 hours of mandatory overtime for his deputies working at the Bexar County Adult Detention Center. He assured commissioners his office was doing their best to alleviate the need for overtime pay.
“We’re recruiting like crazy,” he said. “We recently lowered our hiring age to 18. And we started doing a different sort of training with our deputies … we’re putting them through a one-week orientation course [working] in the jail. What that allows us to do is hang on to these folks, they’re not applying to other agencies while we’re waiting for academy to start.”
Commissioners approved the measure unanimously.