EDINBURG - The Hidalgo County Elections Department held an open house on Monday to display their newly purchased voting machines and allow the public a chance to test them out.

In February, the Hidalgo County Commissioners Court approved of the nearly $5.5 million price tag for the 1,294 Hart InterCivic Verity Voting machines, which the county hopes will make casting ballots easier for residents and election officials.

At the open house, Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia and Elections Administrator Yvonne Ramón spoke about the machines and explained how they will improve voting in the county.

“These machines meet the Americans with Disabilities [Act] standards. They are easier to transport and set up. And, human error will be reduced through this new automated system,” Garcia said. “These new machines will make voting more accessible and user friendly, whether you select to vote in English or Spanish.”

One of the main advantages of the new voting machines over the old iVotronics is the implementation of a centralized console called the Verity Controller. When a voter checks in to a polling location, the Controller generates an access code for the individual, which they enter to bring up their ballot. This also expedites reports generated for election officials and allows for more efficient tallying across machines. For voters with disabilities, the ADA compliant models have user-adjusted audio and contrast settings, Braille, and large buttons, allowing them more independence in the booth. And, all the machines are federally and state certified.

“We have done a complete turnaround and made sure that every time that voter selects that ballot, it is the correct ballot,” Ramon said.

To make voting even simpler, Hidalgo has applied to be part of Texas’ Countywide Polling Place program. The program allows registered voters to vote at any polling location in their county on election day. As it stands, voters must vote in their precinct, unless they are casting early ballots. County officials hope the change will reduce confusion and headaches and increase voter turnout.

“It used to be that we would have so many elections complaints, and we had fewer people voting,” Garcia said. “Today ... at our general election we had over 176,000 people vote ... and that is due to the confident staff and the leadership of Mrs. Yvonne Ramón.”

As of November 2016, Hidalgo County has 338,563 registered voters.

With all the advantages, security is still a concern. Hidalgo, like many counties in Texas, is exclusively a direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting county with no voter-verified paper audit trail (VVPAT). This means that voting is done completely electronically with no paper ballots produced for backup. If there is a system malfunction, tampering or even hacking, officials can only refer to a machine’s internal data for audits or recounts. Further clouding voting integrity is the fact that in 2013 the Rio Grande Valley had the highest number of public officials convicted of corruption than any other region in the nation.

However, Ramón is confident that the machines are safe, and she is currently working on a cyber security policy plan to present before county officials.

“Homeland Security is watching. We are watching our numbers. We are watching our database. So, it takes all of us working together to make sure that if anything were to be identified, we would be on top of it. “

Despite the possible threats, officials say exercising your right to vote is paramount.

“I consider the ability to vote as one of our greatest rights and privileges,” Garcia said. “Our county has two obligations in running elections: One, to ensure that all registered voters have access to vote. And, two, to ensure that your vote counts. I am pleased to be here in support of the Hidalgo County Elections Department as they introduce a new voting system that will do just that.”

For more information or to schedule a demonstration of the new voting machines by election officials, contact the Hidalgo County Elections Department by phone at (956) 318-2570 or visit http://co.hidalgo.tx.us/elections .