Elections Board Hears Concerns About Voting Systems. Vote on Vendor Expected Monday

[Published in the News & Observer and the Charlotte Observer July 28, 2019 by Dan Kane]

After a three-hour hearing that included representatives of three voting system vendors demonstrating their wares to State Board of Elections members, the board Sunday night chose to wait a day before deciding which ones to certify for counties across the state to use.

Board chairman Bob Cordle said after a nearly hour-long closed session that waiting a day would allow Ken Raymond of Winston-Salem, the one member of the five-person board who was unable to attend Sunday, to vote. The board will reconvene at 7 p.m. Monday.

“We just think it’s better to have all five of us here,” Cordle said.

The meeting was held on the evening before the annual North Carolina elections conference, which runs Monday and Tuesday at the hotel. Board spokesman Pat Gannon said roughly 700 elections officials from across the state are expected to attend.

The vote to certify vendors comes as concerns rise over Russia’s efforts to disrupt elections. Last week, the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee released a report that Russia targeted voting systems in all 50 states in 2016. The report did not find that any votes were altered, but it said Russian “cyberactors” had reached deep enough into Illinois’ voter database to delete or change voter data, The New York Times reported.

“In 2016, the U.S. was unprepared at all levels of government for a concerted attack from a determined foreign adversary on our election infrastructure,” said U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican who is chairman of the committee, in a statement. “Since then, we have learned much more about the nature of Russia’s cyber activities and better understand the real and urgent threat they pose.”

Robert Mueller, the former special counsel investigating Russia’s election interference, warned at Congressional hearings last week that Russia would be trying again in the 2020 elections. He found that Russia, in “sweeping and systemic fashion” interfered in the 2016 election in favor of Republican businessman Donald Trump, who won the Electoral College vote — but not the popular vote — over Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Among the Senate committee’s recommendations was that any new voting system have a “voter-verified paper trail.”

Last month, the state board postponed certifying any vendors amid concerns about who owned the companies. The board wanted those vying for certification to divulge everyone who owns at least 5% of their companies or any parent or subsidiary company. After the board received additional information, the federal Department of Homeland Security reviewed it and didn’t find any “red flags,” Gannon said.

Three companies are seeking certification for their systems: Clear Ballot, Election Systems & Software and Hart InterCivic. All produce a paper ballot, but ES&S also includes a touchscreen system that produces a paper ballot that drew concerns.

ES&S had been the only certified voting systems vendor in the state, with its products used in all North Carolina elections in recent years. The company provides systems that use paper ballots, as well as a touch-screen, direct-record-electronic machine used in roughly 20 counties on the last Election Day.

Those touch-screen systems are supposed to be decertified in the state by Dec. 1, in favor of paper ballot systems. Legislation in the General Assembly, however, could push back the decertification date.

One advantage touch-screen systems have is they better accommodate voters with disabilities. Gannon said the certification of new systems would give counties new options to comply under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Gannon said the systems the board considered for certification meet federal standards and are approved for use by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. He said they are being used in other states and completed North Carolina’s “rigorous” testing process, which included a simulated election.

The meeting drew a crowd who filled the roughly 110 seats set up in a conference room at the Cary Embassy Suites off Harrison Boulevard. The three vendors set up demonstration tables at the meeting, and board members spent 20 minutes listening to each company’s pitch.

Comments submitted before the meeting showed a strong preference for hand-marked paper ballots.

“Computers have no place in a verifiable, democratic election process,” wrote Avram Friedman of The Canary Coalition, an environmental group in Western North Carolina. “Hand-counted paper ballots are the way to go. Computers can be programmed or hacked to manipulate the results of an election without a trace of wrong-doing.”

That continued during a 30-minute public comment period.

“A bar code cannot be double checked by the voter for correctness,” said Siobhan Millen, a Wake County precinct judge. “I don’t speak bar code, and the voters don’t either.”

Dianna Wynn, president of the League of Women Voters of Wake County, said the ownership information the three vendors provided the board still was not enough to ensure confidence they would be free of any improper financial or political influence. The best protection against that possibility would be hand-marked paper ballots and follow-up election audits, she said.

Monday night’s meeting will be at the same hotel.