State Board Looks at New Voting Machines, But No Decision Yet

[Published on July 28, 2019 by Travis Fain]

CARY — The State Board of Elections delayed a vote Sunday to help determine what voting equipment North Carolinians use in future elections, deciding to wait 24 hours so the full board could be there for the decision.

The board plans to convene again at 7 p.m. Monday when Ken Raymond, a Winston-Salem member who couldn't make it Sunday night, will be in town. The board must decide which voting equipment to certify, freeing county election officials across the state to buy new equipment.

More than 30 counties use touchscreen voting machines called DREs now and need to replace them before the 2020 elections. Those systems don't meet state requirements, unless the N.C. legislature takes up pending legislation to delay the state's incoming ban on these machines.

Fueled by revelations of Russian tampering efforts, dozens of people turned out for Sunday's meeting, mostly to ask the board not to certify machines that don't use hand-marked paper ballots. The state's current vendor has a touchscreen option it wants to sell, and though company officials insist it's safe, public comment ran heavily against it.

Activist groups from the left, including the League of Women Voters, the state NAACP, Democracy NC and the state Democratic Party, also asked the board either to reject certification or to slow the process and ask more questions.

The vote to delay 24 hours was unanimous, made after the board met in closed session for nearly an hour. Cordle said it was simply about having all five members on hand for an important vote, and a board spokesman had indicated Friday that the decision might be delayed over attendance.

Board members also got demonstrations of the new machines Sunday and heard pitches from the three companies involved: ES&S, Clear Ballot and Hart InterCivic. ES&S is the only company certified in North Carolina now, but it needs board approval to sell new models to county election boards.

The other two companies want to start doing business here.

All three will stay on hand at an Embassy Suites in Cary, where county election officials from all over North Carolina have gathered for biannual meetings and training. Sales teams will also be demonstrating their machines for local officials, and pitching them to buy.

There are strict rules limiting contact and forbidding gifts, State Board General Counsel Katelyn Love said.

"Not even a pen," she said.

The certification decision is unlikely to impact voting in many counties, including Wake County, at least in the near term. Wake Board of Elections Chairman Greg Flynn attended Sunday's meeting and said he expects the county to stick with the hand-marked paper ballot system from ES&S that it uses now.

"We're set for the next 10 years," Flynn said.

Much of the public concern centers on ES&S's ExpressVote touchscreen system. These machines don't record votes electronically like the DRE touchscreens that the state is moving away from. Instead, they spit out a paper ballot that turns votes into barcodes and also lists, using words, how the person voted.

That ballot gets fed into a counter, much like hand-marked paper ballots are.

ES&S officials said people can see how they voted and that these paper records could be hand counted if need be. Activists who don't trust the bar codes said there's no way for a voter to tell if the typed-out record of a person's vote matches the bar code, and it's the bar code the machine counts.

"Any discrepancy is really unknowable," said Lynn Bernstein, an activist who has researched voting systems in use around the country.

ES&S argued Sunday that even hand-marked ballots rely on bar codes. Automatic counters that pick up on filled-in bubbles don't read the names next to those bubbles. They rely instead on timing marks around the ballot edges, or on other points of reference like bar codes, to pinpoint the filled-in bubble's location on the paper.

It's much like finding coordinates on a map.

"This bar code is the same coordinates on the map," ES&S's Mac Beeson told board members Sunday.

With the Hart InterCivic and Clear Ballot systems, voters fill in the bubble, though, giving people more peace of mind. Several activists asked the board Sunday why they'd approve expensive touchscreen machines to create paper ballots when pen and paper work fine.

The systems on offer from all three companies already meet federal certifications, and State Board staff has said they meet the letter of North Carolina's laws as well. But the board is empowered to change certification requirements with a majority vote.

The state's Elections Systems Certification Program says all vendors "must submit to all standards, mandates and requirements imposed by the state board."

ES&S has been waiting to get its ExpressVote system certified in North Carolina for more than 4 years. Company officials said it's state-certified as well in 40 states.

Asked whether ES&S might sue if the State Board doesn't certify it here, Owen Andrews, ES&S's representative in North Carolina, said he couldn't speak for management.

“I can’t answer that," he said. "But what would you do?"