Texas Voter Database Running Behind Schedule

But Project Manager Still Predicts Jan. Rollout

By Greg Moses

A project to develop a statewide database for voter registration is running behind schedule, but the state’s manager of the project predicts it will be completed in time to meet a federal deadline of Jan. 1.

“It has taken a little while to get the project on its feet,” says Bob Futrell, who oversees the project for the Texas Secretary of State, “but it’s okay now.”

A mandate to create the Texas Voter Registration/Election Management System (TEAMS) originates in the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002 which requires all states to have centralized databases by Jan. 1.

“Meeting the January deadline will be a challenge,” said Futrell, speaking by telephone Thursday from his Austin office, “but in my experience these things are always a challenge up front.” Futrell is an expert in the management of software development, holding academic positions at the University of Texas and at Austin Community College. He has also co-authored a textbook in the field.

With an estimated 36,000 hours of work going into the project at an initial cost of $9.5 million, winning bidders IBM and Hart InterCivic promise to deliver a statewide voter registration database, election management, ballot definition, election night reporting, and a jury management system, too.

According to a thick contract that we reviewed earlier this week at the capitol, the state will also pay at least $600,000 per year in Annual Maintenance Fees for five years.

“I can’t stress enough how different this is from an election system,” advised a well-placed source who answered questions about the contract earlier in the week. One way to understand the difference between election system and election management in a Texas context is to contrast the role of the County Clerk who runs the election and the Tax Assessor who manages the voter database.

Hart InterCivic is well known to election activists as the manufacturer of the proprietary eSlate voting terminal and the election system software that goes with it. Election systems take the votes from voters and tabulate them.

The statewide election management system for Texas also begins with proprietary software from Hart InterCivic known as eRegistry. Of the $9.5 million that the state is paying in startup costs for the project, $4.0 million is dedicated to license fees for eRegistry.

“At the time the project began, the Hart software was not fully developed,” says project manager Futrell. “On the one hand, that means there were really a lot of unknowns; on the other hand, we get to shape it.”

A list of about 2,800 detailed requirements for the TEAMS project are nearly ready for approval by the state, says Futrell. That part of the project had been scheduled for approval Feb. 3.

Another significant milestone — a software release known as “Hart One” — is also pending approval. Original plans called for Hart One to be completed by March 15. Futrell says that was the day when Hart provided a URL to access the software, followed in the next several days by a CD, source code to be escrowed, and user manuals. Hart will be paid $975,000 for Hart One when it is finally accepted by the state.

Futrell says the project is still in the first phase or “Prepare Phase” and that the whole project team has recently completed a two-day review of the project. According to early plans, Prepare Phase was scheduled for completion in late January or early February. But Futrell says “unfortunate timing” plays a role in the delays.

In one “unfortunate” conflict, the state had originally scheduled normal work during the November elections of 2004. In another, training of statewide users will fall during the holiday season of 2005.

Futrell predicts the state will close the gap in deadlines during the next two phases of the project, known as “Design” and “Configure” phases. The Design Phase originally scheduled to be completed on April 8 will be pushed back to June 27. But the Configure Phase originally scheduled for completion in mid-December will only be pushed back about a week.

“We still believe that we will have the voter registration part completed in time for the HAVA deadline,” says Futrell. Some of the other election management features may come later.

For some time, the Secretary of State has already been managing voter rolls for 164 counties, says another source with the Secretary of State. HAVA will allow the remaining 90 counties to maintain their own systems, so long as they upload data to the statewide database on a timely basis. The Secretary of State will try to build a system so impressive that all counties will sign up for “real time” service, eliminating themselves as middle managers.

A two-page brochure posted at the Hart website says that eRegistry’s functionality includes:

Voter Registration: Complete Registration Functionality; Validation against Agency Data; Voter Address, Event and Voting Histories; Suppression of Confidential Voter Information; Automated Mass Voter Updates and Mailings; Voter Address; District and Precinct Maintenance; and Redistricting.

Comprehensive Reporting: NVRA reporting; Standard, Ad Hoc, Statistical and Performance-based Reporting.

Election Management: Absentee Balloting n Early Voting; Poll Worker Recruitment, Assignment and Training; Polling Place Management; Poll Book Printing; Candidate Filing; Petition Management; Canvass; Election Results Reporting; Ballot Generation / Definition Capabilities; Public Information Generation, Tracking and Billing.

Imports/Exports in XML Format: Imports agency data and exports voter registration information to other states in XML format for standardized election data exchange.

Imaging: Voter signatures, applications and correspondence; petition pages; poll book pages; voter IDs; provisional ballot applications. Utilizes off-the-shelf scanners.

Automated Processing: Bar Codes for voter correspondence, voting history, updates from poll books, absentee ballot returns, voter sign-in, precinct equipment, supplies, ballot boxes, OCR/ICR for voter application processing

Great care is taken in the Hart portion of the contract to maintain Hart’s ownership, control, and confidentiality over this powerful and comprehensive software technology. The state of Texas, says the contract, “agrees to treat the Source Code and other deposit materials as exceptionally valuable trade secrets.”

For example, the contract prohibits, “adaptation, conversion, reverse engineering, disassembly or de-compilation” of the eRegistry software without Hart’s permission. The state is not even allowed to publish “results of benchmark tests run on the Software” without Hart’s approval. And in the event that Hart determines such results “contain confidential or proprietary information” the contract binds the state to “seek confidential treatment” of the information.

Hart’s intellectual property will include improvements and upgrades made to eRegistry during the contract, but the state has a fifth-year option to buy the whole package “as is” at fair market value.

Part of the complexity of the TEAMS project, says project manager Futrell, is determining which of the 2,800 required functions are already part of the Hart software and which will require customization. Then designers will have to figure out how to “wrap” the custom features around the existing Hart core.

Note: First version posted Mar. 30 with substantial updates following the Futrell interview Mar. 31. The Texas Civil Rights Review has scheduled another contract viewing for the week of Apr. 4.

* * *

Note: following careful review of project documents, this story was corrected on Apr. 17 to reflect that the Hart product of Mar
ch 15 is called “Hart One.”

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