A nonpartisan election reform effort is surging in Texas after a series of purported flaws in election law allegedly allowed former Texas Republican Party Chairman Matt Rinaldi and Democratic senatorial candidate Colin Allred’s primary ballots to be identified and publicized.

Shannon Barnett’s organization, My Vote Counts in Texas, was the first to identify the legal loophole that made the Rinaldi leak possible. She and her organization now want to close this loophole by returning to an electoral system she describes as “cost-effective [and] simplistic,” which could facilitate “verifiable elections.”

“Simplicity” is an issue Barnett frequently highlights, but what does it mean in practice? A return to in-precinct voting, she said.

Voting out of precincts allows ballots to become subject to public records requests. When Texas public records laws and the election code are both utilized, legally savvy records requestors can identify who voted outside of their precinct and how they voted.

This legal loophole stemmed from election laws that took effect in the mid-2010s. These laws allow voters to cast their ballots anywhere outside their precinct, so long as it is within the same county. County-wide voting was initially pitched to voters as a way to increase convenience. However, it has instead compromised ballot secrecy and created confusion about where to vote, creating long lines at voting centers in the process, Barnett said.

Barnett is also pushing for a return to hand-marked, hand-counted paper ballots. This is already authorized by state law and done in about 100 counties. According to Barnett, counties could switch to this system tomorrow if they chose to because they already have systems in place for issuing and counting hand-marked ballots because of absentee ballots.

Wouldn’t it take forever to count the votes? Barnett argues that countries like France have a voting system similar to what her organization is calling for, and the French are able to determine an election’s winner on election day. Moreover, she points to recent failures in Texas elections that can make voting impossible.

Texas sees recurrent power outages. Power failed across DFW during this spring’s severe storms and during several heat waves in recent summers. The power infamously failed for days in the February 2021 winter storm.

More than 100 voting centers were unable to conduct voting during the most recent Dallas County elections because of prolonged power outages. This would not be an issue with hand-marked, hand-counted ballots, Barnett claimed, as any power outage could be overcome with flashlights.

Moreover, Barnett said that this simplified and uniform voting system would be more flexible to precincts’ needs. When voters vote through machines, they are constrained by the number of machines. With a hand-marked ballot system, polling stations can simply “add a table [with partitions] and get it done,” she said.

Costs could be reduced, too, but this is a point that is hotly contested. Skeptics of paper ballots often argue that they are expensive to print and count, as reported by The Texas Tribune.

Barnett disagrees. She claims that jurisdictions often do not own their voting machines; rather, they are “renting.” The rentals on these machines cost taxpayers thousands of dollars. When a jurisdiction converts to county-wide voting, she said that state law mandates the entire county switch to digital voting machines, even if certain precincts would prefer to use another system or find it would be cheaper to use hand-marked ballots.

Verifiable elections are also important, and Barnett is not the only person to have found issues with the type of machines being used by Texas.

“Texas uses a few different methods of voting. Texans cast their votes by paper ballot (which is counted either by hand or by using an optical scan system) or by using a Direct Recording Electronic system (DRE),” VoteTexas.Gov’s website reads. A catalog of counties available on the Texas Secretary of State’s website reveals DREs are in use in many of Texas’ most highly populated counties.

However, the bipartisan election reform commission led by former President Jimmy Carter in 2005 took issue with these recording systems.

“The accessibility and accuracy of DREs, however, are offset by a lack of transparency, which has raised concerns about security and verifiability. In most of the DREs used in 2004, voters could not check that their ballot was recorded correctly. Some DREs had no capacity for an independent recount,” the commission’s report stated before enumerating a series of examples where such machines have malfunctioned and state election results had to be thrown out.

The report later states that DREs can be made more transparent by having a paper record of the vote. This assertion begs the question, why not just have paper ballot voting then? The commission did not fully answer that question.

Later, the report takes issue with mail-in voting.

“While vote by mail appears to increase turnout for local elections, there is no evidence that it significantly expands participation in federal elections. … Moreover, it raises concerns about privacy, as citizens voting at home may come under pressure to vote for certain candidates, and it increases the risk of fraud,” the report reads.

The commission’s findings did not address early voting at length, except to note it should not commence more than 15 days before the election. This year, early voting in Texas’ general election will commence 16 days before election day.

Like the bipartisan commission, Barnett’s nonpartisan organization opposes mail-in voting. However, Barnett goes further than the commission in her objections to early voting and would like to see both it and mail-in voting put to an end.

Some would object that eliminating early voting would suppress voter turnout in Texas. Still, Barnett cites numerous recent inquiries that have found early voting has continued to fall in every election over the last three cycles.

But who has the power to change election protocol? County commissioners. Part of Barnett’s campaign is focused on getting the county commissions to move toward hand-marked, hand-counted ballots.

The other part of her campaign focuses on the governor and the state legislature. Gov. Greg Abbott has promised to call “special session after special session to… uphold election integrity, & pass other items Texans demand & deserve.” While there was a session on election integrity in 2021, Barnett argues that there is still work to do like eliminating early voting and county-wide voting, improving original document verifications for absentee mail-in ballots, updating voter rolls monthly, closing loopholes that can expose and identify how people voted.

Moreover, there is a question about whether Texas’ electoral processes are even legal now. The Texas election code states, “A voting system may not be used in an election unless the system: (1) preserves the secrecy of the ballot.”

Given the well-known cases of ballots allegedly being exposed, there appears to be an unresolved conflict in state law.

These reasons and the legal requirement that changes to election law must be made a certain number of days before an election were cited by Barnett on the Cowtown Caller podcast as to why action must be taken now.

A petition she has created is quickly gaining thousands of signatures every day, and she plans to compile the signatures into a final document that she will present to the governor next month.

“This [petition] is our pathway to success,” she said.

A 2022 Rasmussen report found that 83% of Americans were concerned about election integrity.

Confidence in elections has been extremely volatile amongst Democrats, Republicans, and independents in every election since 2008.