NC elections board delays decision on new voting machines, wants to know who owns potential vendors

[Published on WRAL.com, June 13, 2019; by Travis Fain, WRAL statehouse reporter]

RALEIGH, N.C. — The State Board of Elections wants to know who owns a trio of companies vying to sell voting equipment to counties across North Carolina, and the board delayed a long-pending decision Thursday to certify new machines.

New state elections Director Karen Brinson Bell said the new requirement is "just a best practice," and there's no particular suspicion that any of the companies have foreign ownership. But election hacking and foreign tampering concerns have been cranking up since before the 2016 elections.

Last year, Maryland learned from the FBI that some of its elections infrastructure came from a company at least partly owned by a Russian oligarch.

The state board met Thursday with a vote expected to certify equipment on offer from at least one of three companies. The companies need state certification before they can sell voting machines to the county election boards that oversee election day around the state.

More than 30 counties need new equipment before the end of this year to replace touchscreen voting systems the legislature has ordered to be phased out in favor of paper ballots or machines that produce a paper record.

It's possible that edict will be delayed. Brinson Bell recommended delay when she spoke to lawmakers last week, her first week on the job, but that doesn't mean the General Assembly will move on her request.

Companies seeking certification will now have to disclose any owners with at least a 5 percent interest in their company, its subsidiaries or its parent company. That information is due by June 21, and Brinson Bell said she expects a certification decision soon after.

The following three companies seeking certification:

  • Clear Ballot, headquartered in Massachusetts, with its ClearVote 1.4 system

  • ES&S in Nebraska, with its EVS 5.2.2.0 system

  • Hart InterCivic, based in Texas, with its Verity Voting 2.2 system

ES&S is the only company certified in North Carolina now, but it wants certification approved for new equipment.

A handful of activists also attended Thursday's meeting and expressed concern with some of the systems on offer and with the way the state board has moved toward this decision. Lynn Bernstein, an aerospace engineer by training, questioned the security of various systems and peppered the board with questions about how it evaluated the three companies.

Others, including Marian Lewin of the League of Women Voters of Wake County, asked similar questions. Several asked about the board's transparency, saying there wasn't enough information online about the certification process.

"Show us how you came to your decision," Bernstein said, before the board surprised attendees by delaying certification.

Even a regional dealer for ES&S who attended the meeting said he was caught off guard when he heard the board planned to certify machines this week. Owen Andrews, the president of Printelect, said his group has been waiting on certification for more than four years.

"We didn't think you guys would act this quickly," he said. "We applaud that, but we think there are unanswered questions."

After the vote to seek ownership information from the companies, board Chairman Bob Cordle directed staff to put "all of the documents that we have concerning the certification program" online.

Brinson Bell said she feels good about all three companies seeking certification and that they've all met stringent testing requirements.