[Published in the News & Observer, August 3, 2018; by Alex Lewontin]
Raleigh -- You’ve researched the candidates and made your decisions. You head to your polling place, fill out your ballot, and put it in the scanner. But as it gets sucked into the machine, what’s happening to it?
If you use a touch-screen voting machine, or assistive technology, what happens when you submit your vote and it flies off into the ether?
The latest generation of machines offer more assurance that your vote counts. In what is likely to be the largest overhaul of North Carolina’s voting technology in a decade, counties across the state are preparing to comply with a statewide requirement to phase out voting machines that don’t mark a physical paper ballot by Sept. 1, 2019.
Lawmakers and activists say those devices, known as direct-recording electronic voting machines, do not produce a sufficient record. The requirement is one of the surviving provisions of North Carolina’s controversial 2013 voter ID law.
The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School has estimated that the upgrades will cost North Carolina counties between $4.9 and $7.7 million. It’s still unclear where that money will come from. The state recently received $10.9 million in funding to upgrade its election systems, but it spent that money on modernizing the Statewide Elections Information Management System that among other things keeps track of voter rolls.
The Secure Elections Act, a bipartisan response to allegations of Russian tampering in the 2016 election, has been gaining momentum in the U.S. Senate, according to reports from Politico and other news outlets. The legislation would allocate $186 million in grants for states to modernize and secure voting machines.
North Carolina elections board hosted four vendors last week for a public demonstration of voting equipment under consideration for certification. That came after satisfactory performance during third-party testing and successful operation during a simulated election.
Representatives of Hart InterCivic, Clear Ballot, Dominion Voting Systems and Election Systems & Software demonstrated systems for designing, printing, marking, scanning and counting ballots. A fifth firm, Unisyn Voting Solutions, was scheduled to participate but dropped out in the days leading up to the demonstration.
The companies demonstrated a range of equipment which included improvements to security and accessibility.
The biggest change in technology is the introduction of ballot-marking devices, according to Veronica Degraffenreid, director of election operations for the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement. Ballot marking devices provide an alternative to the soon-to-be outlawed direct-recording electronic voting machines. While both allow voters to make their choices on a touch screen — or using assistive technology for voters with disabilities including audio narration, sip-and-puff switches, and other accessible input technology — ballot marking devices then mark a physical paper ballot for the voters which can be checked and is counted just like any other.
At least a third of NC counties still use direct-recording machines, which have been criticized as being less transparent and therefore more vulnerable to hacking.
“The ultimate security is the tangible paper ballot that you can always return to,” said Keir Holeman, a sales engineer for Clear Ballot. All vendors demonstrated ballot marking devices.
The software packages behind the vote scanning and counting systems from all vendors has also seen improvements. If the machine is unsure about your votes — for example, if too many or too few marks are detected — it will immediately spit out the paper for you to confirm, correct, or spoil and fill out anew. The vendors demonstrated that after the ballots are scanned in, a digital image of any ballot can be quickly and easily called up, so that the results can be audited. It also allows any errors not corrected by the voter to be adjudicated, a process that varies by county.
“The vendors are modernizing and they want jurisdictions to purchase their equipment,” said Degraffenreid. “The last time we did something of this size was after the Help America Vote Act, which gave all the states funding to purchase new voting equipment.”
The Help America Vote Act was signed into law in 2002 as a response to concerns about the voting technology used in the 2000 presidential election — in which the infamous butterfly ballots and hanging chads, among other technological failures, led to an estimated 4 to 6 million votes going uncounted, according to news reports at the time.
Similarly, this round of upgrades comes on the heels of concerns regarding the technology used in the 2016 election.
In North Carolina, Durham County faced difficulties transferring data off of the memory cards in its vote scanning machine bought from Election Systems & Software.
The glitch, the result of memory limitations in the counting software, caused a late-night lead change in the gubernatorial race from then-incumbent Pat McCrory to challenger and eventual victor Roy Cooper, despite the state’s website reporting that the county had already completed tallying its votes.
State election officials posed questions to each vendor regarding the storage capacity of their machines and counting software.
Some activists present had their own concerns.
“We have a significant disabled community, so we want to make sure the machines that are designed to help them really work,” said Marian Lewin, president of the Wake County League of Women Voters. “The machines that they’ve (currently) certified for the disabled are very old and very cranky and don’t work very often. We have a lot of old machines that just need to be replaced.”
Voters with disabilities are more likely to record their votes using a machine, so they are more susceptible to the problems of the past generation of systems.
Chris Telesca, founder of Wake Coalition for Verified Voting, wants to keep it simple. Before founding the Wake County chapter, he was involved in the North Carolina Coalition for Verified Voting, which pushed for a 2005 law which raised the technical standards for voting machines used in the state. Since the passage of the act, only Election Systems & Software machines have passed certification in North Carolina, and Telesca has been happy with the uniformity of the systems used.
“I don’t love any vendor, but I figure, if we’ve got good high standards, and only one company can meet them and isn’t asking to lower them, I say go with that company,” said Telesca. “If they bring in too many competitors, there are going to be problems.”
Telesca wasn’t thrilled with all new devices demonstrated. Election Systems & Software’s ExpressVote, marketed as a hybrid between the direct recording and ballot marking machines, prints a physical piece of paper that lists the choices made by the voter, but encodes the actual information read by the scanner in a barcode. Election Systems & Software representatives said the barcoded ballots could be fed back into the machine, so users could be satisfied the barcodes would actually represent their choices when scanned. Telesca is still skeptical.
“I don’t read barcode,” he said. “Here’s what I like about hand-marked paper ballots: If all (the computers) stop working, you can open up the machine in front of witnesses and and you can sort, stack and tally.”
Concerns can be submitted to the elections board during the public comment period that lasts until Aug. 10. After considering public comments, the board will vote whether to approve each machine. Then, it falls to the counties to decide which equipment to buy. A few voters might see these machines in a limited field test this fall, a part of the county purchasing process, but most will use the new set of machines to pick a new set of officials in the November 2020 general election.