Are some voters' ballots not so secret? Texas lawmakers need to fix mess they created

In certain circumstances, former Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir told me, 鈥渋t is an easy, simple, silly exercise.鈥

Scoop up the reams of cast vote records that Texas lawmakers have made more accessible to the general public since the 2020 election. Cross-check that information with other election-related records showing when and where a particular person voted, and by process of elimination, you might be able to figure out which ballot was theirs.

It won鈥檛 work all of the time, or even most of the time, said DeBeauvoir, who is nonetheless upset that it could work at all.

鈥淭his is one out of 100,000 or 200,000 votes that might get outed with some confidence level,鈥 she said, noting that the busier a polling place is, the harder it becomes for someone to later guess which ballot might have come from which voter.

But still. With the news site Current Revolt recently publishing what it claims is the 2024 Dallas County primary ballot of former Texas Republican Party Chairman Matt Rinaldi, and with independently verifying that ballot identification techniques are possible with the vast election records available under state law, Texans are faced with the alarming possibility that some secret ballots aren鈥檛 so secret.

Because of recent Texas laws, it has become possible under certain circumstances to identify how a specific person voted.

"We're talking about a few," said DeBeauvoir, who retired in 2022 as Travis County's longtime elections chief and still advocates for ethical election policies. "But mostly it's done for embarrassment. It's done for intimidation purposes. It is not done for auditing. It is not done for the security of the election."

While preaching about election security, Texas lawmakers buckled to the demands of election skeptics who wanted to run their own audits, making more election records available to the public without understanding how they could be combined and misused.

And even if it鈥檚 only a relative handful of voters whose ballots are identified, the chilling effect could extend beyond them. Will people feel free to vote their conscience 鈥 or want to vote at all 鈥 if they fear there鈥檚 a chance of exposure and retaliation?

The problem is serious enough that the Texas Secretary of State鈥檚 Office Thursday, directing county elections officials to redact information that ballot sleuths might use, in conjunction with other records, to identify a voter鈥檚 picks.

鈥淓very Texan has the right to a secret ballot, and that right must remain sacred,鈥 Secretary of State Jane Nelson said in a written statement.

She said that anyone who publicizes someone else鈥檚 ballot selections can face legal action if a voter is intimidated, bribed or coerced.

Voters should continue to vote. The issues of our time are too important for voters to go quiet. But the lawmakers who created this mess must fix it in the next legislative session.

We didn鈥檛 arrive at this ballot predicament through one law, but through several efforts to make various elections-related records more accessible to the public. The most consequential was , passed last year, which allows the public to obtain the records showing the selections on each voted ballot once 60 days have passed from the election. An attorney general's ruling in 2022 said those records should be made available promptly.

Previously, those records weren鈥檛 available until 22 months after an election. Apart from the occasional political science professor, few people were interested in old ballots by then. That changed after the 2020 presidential election, when fleets of amateur auditors wanted to scrutinize the ballots themselves, skeptical of the official results.

The law says any 鈥減ersonally identifiable information鈥 should be redacted before election records are released. As it is, the ballot records don鈥檛 contain a voter鈥檚 name or other personal data, such as a date of birth or Social Security number.

But other data points can narrow things down.

鈥淚f someone is the only voter that voted in that race, or on that day of early voting, or whatever the situation may be, then the precinct (where they voted) makes it personally identifiable,鈥 said Randall County Elections Administrator Shannon Lackey, vice president of the Texas Association of Elections Administrators.

鈥淭he judge's signature on the back of that ballot could make it personally identifiable, because you would know what location they voted at,鈥 Lackey continued. 鈥淪imply releasing the roster of early voting voters per day with the location on it can help tie that back. So we have to look at personally identifiable information in a way that we never have before.鈥

Redacting information that links ballots to a specific voting location, as the secretary of state鈥檚 emergency guidance suggests, is a good start, Lackey said. But the Legislature needs to shore up the laws to ensure that information is protected.

鈥淲e as elections administrators have done everything that's been asked of us for the sake of transparency,鈥 Lackey told me, 鈥渁nd it almost feels like the transparency was used against us to try to breach a sense of security.鈥

鈥淰oters should never, ever question whether or not their vote is going to be counted, or is going to be private,鈥 she added. The revelation that some members of the public were using records to try to identify voters鈥 ballots 鈥済oes against everything that we do.鈥

Elections offices have always run internal checks to ensure accurate ballot tallies. At any point, election data can be provided to trusted experts if an external audit is needed.

But let鈥檚 be clear: All of the data to run an audit should not be provided to the general public, not when the secrecy of individual voters鈥 ballots could be compromised.

Election security should begin there.

Grumet is the Statesman鈥檚 Metro columnist. Her column, ATX in Context, contains her opinions. Share yours via email at bgrumet@statesman.com or on X at @bgrumet. Find her previous work at statesman.com/opinion/columns.