TEXAS VIEW: Texas election law threatens voter confidentiality

A sense of alarm about the erosion of voter privacy has been growing among Texas election officials the past few months. It came to a head on June 6.

That day, Christina Adkins, the director of the elections division of the Texas Secretary of State’s Office, sent a memo to county election departments across the state with “emergency guidance on voter privacy.”

It was prompted by the latest example of what has become an all-too frequent occurrence in Texas: state lawmakers tampering with election rules and forcing flummoxed administrators on the ground to deal with the mess.

Adkins’ memo concerned the implementation of HB5180, which Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law last year and took effect in September.

The new law requires county election administrators, in response to open-records requests, to make available “images of voted ballots” or “cast vote records,” beginning on the first day after the completion of the final canvass for an election.

Beginning 61 days after an election, those county election offices must allow for the public inspection of “original voted ballots.”

The law specifies that election departments should redact any personal information from those ballots before making them available for public viewing.

The problem, as election officials define it, is that by allowing self-appointed voter-integrity activists to gain access to more and more election information, the state has made it possible for members of the public to gather voter data points, cross-reference that data and identify the ballots of particular individuals.

That means your right to privacy, to maintain the confidentiality of how you fill out your ballot, is endangered.

That danger is particularly high in small counties, small precincts and low-turnout races, where it’s easier to match the publicly released information with particular voters.

“What bothers me is that people cannot vote in secret in the United States,” Williamson County District Attorney Shawn Dick recently told Votebeat Texas. “If people’s ballots don’t remain anonymous, that’s a huge affront to our system of government and our system of elections.”

Last month, right-wing website Current Revolt published what it claimed was a screenshot of the March 5 GOP primary ballot cast by Matt Rinaldi, who was then the chair of the Republican Party of Texas.

On March 26, Williamson County poll-watching activist Laura Pressley filed a lawsuit in federal court over this very issue against Adkins, Texas Secretary of State Jane Nelson and three county election administrators.

In the lawsuit, Pressley and her fellow plaintiffs place no blame with the Texas Legislature. She pins the ballot privacy crisis on election officials for what she describes as the “willful and systematic disregard of valid, constitutional federal and state election laws.”

In particular, the suit targets the use of electronic voting systems for in-person voting.

“Unlike Texans who are permitted to vote by mail,” the lawsuit argues, “if Plaintiffs wish to participate in the election process in their respective counties, they must use a voting system that contains uncertified and illegal components that breach the secrecy of Plaintiffs’ votes.”

This is a common refrain from election-fraud activists, who regard electronic voting machines as systems that can be easily manipulated to alter election results.

This paranoia has intensified since the 2020 presidential election, when then-President Donald Trump refused to accept his defeat and a number of his allies raised unsubstantiated claims about voting machines being rigged.

Heightened distrust of our election system has led to an increase in open-records requests for voter information in Texas and other states. Election officials say that Texas has moved so far into the realm of election transparency that it’s compromised the confidentiality of the voting process.

“What we have discovered, and I think what a lot of election officials as a community have been very worried about, is that as we’ve increased this level of transparency, it has made this information easier to discover,” Adkins told the Texas Senate’s State Affairs Committee on May 30.

Because the breaching of voter confidentiality is achieved through a combination of data, the June 6 memo from Adkins acknowledged that no single action could be taken in all counties and all cases to guarantee privacy.

So the memo suggests some possible redactions, such as precinct information and/or a ballot number on the ballot image, presiding judges’ signatures, the location at which a voter cast their ballot on the early voting roster, and serial numbers and time stamps on electronic pollbook reports.

These recommendations can provide a Band-Aid, but the underlying problem must be solved by the Legislature. They contributed to this problem, and they should work to fix it.

The 2025 legislative session must include a serious and detailed discussion about how to protect voter privacy.

If we lose that, all other considerations about election integrity become moot.

San Antonio Express-News