Guilford County, N.C., Debates Voting Machine Purchases

Time is important after the Guilford County Board of Elections has twice postponed deciding which voting system to deploy in replacing equipment no longer certified for use in North Carolina after Dec. 1.

by Taft Wireback, News & Record / September 30, 2019
Voters cast their vote in Lexington, S.C., on Jan. 21, 2012. The House passed an election security measure Thursday that would require voting systems to use backup paper ballots in federal contests. (C. Aluka Berry/The State/TNS) TNS

(TNS) — Guilford County, N.C., election officials have a big decision to make Tuesday on a multimillion dollar question that will affect voters for years to come.

The Guilford County Board of Elections has twice postponed deciding which voting system to deploy in replacing equipment no longer certified for use in North Carolina after Dec. 1.

Elections director Charlie Collicutt said last week that he will be comfortable working with whatever choice board members make in their scheduled meeting Tuesday afternoon — but time is growing short.

“We’re still in flux over what we’re going to do,” he said.

Rough cost estimates range up to $8 million to supplant Guilford’s current 1,400 touchscreen voting terminals.

Elections board members are hoping that state officials scheduled to meet earlier Tuesday will provide additional guidance for how to proceed, chairman Horace “Jim” Kimel said.

Kimel didn’t want to speculate on which of the three voting-system vendors recently approved by state officials ranks as the board’s favorite.

“I don’t think there is any vendor we’re looking at any harder than another,” Kimel said.

Collicutt said that getting a new system in place for the May primaries will be a race against the clock that includes such tasks as buying and testing new equipment, getting rid of current voting machines to free up scarce warehouse space and training his staff on the nuances of the new machinery.

He said the time crunch marks the last phase of a process that began six years ago when state legislators sought to increase election accuracy and boost public confidence in the results by eliminating systems that don’t produce a paper record voters can review as they vote.

Roughly 75 counties in North Carolina already had equipment meeting those conditions. Guilford was among those that did not, using touchscreen computer technology known as “direct-record electronic” voting.

Since shortly after the new law was adopted in 2013, Collicutt and his counterparts in other counties have been urging the state Board of Elections to approve one or more voting systems that meet all the new criteria.

State officials finally moved in late August to approve systems marketed by Guilford’s current vendor and supplier of voting equipment statewide — Elections Systems & Software — as well as two other companies, Clear Ballot and Hart InterCivic.

But the state elections board stirred up an electoral tempest by authorizing systems that use hand-marked ballots and another format offered by Elections Systems & Software that relies on a computer touchscreen to mark the paper ballot.

With Elections Systems & Software’s ExpressVote, voters use a computer terminal to digitally fill out a ballot card that prints their choices both in writing and in bar codes. Voters can review the printed part of the ballot for accuracy before feeding it into another machine that counts each vote.

If voters check the printed ballot and find an error, they return it to precinct officials who void the ballot and give them a new one to complete.

Critics contend that the ExpressVote system’s use of bar codes makes it vulnerable to election fraud, fails to fulfill legislators’ goal of boosting voter confidence and renders it impossible to audit the results with any level of precision.

The systems under consideration by Clear Ballot and Hart InterCivic count votes with the same type of tabulators ExpressVote employs. But voters also wield a pen to hand-mark each of their selections on a paper ballot in a traditional multiple-choice format.

In addition to its ExpressVote technology, Elections Systems & Software offers a hand-marked option using pens that the local board also could adopt. Elections Systems & Software has been Guilford’s sole vendor of voting machines since 2006.

On a 4-1 vote last week, the local board postponed further consideration of its options for new equipment until Tuesday, presumably after the state board has met and provided whatever additional clarity it can.

Meanwhile, the state Board of Elections’ certification also has come under fire from the state NAACP. The civil rights group held an emergency meeting in Greensboro two weeks ago at which election experts said the latest systems are vulnerable to hacking and other forms of manipulation, especially given their reliance on bar coding.

In Raleigh, election officials reject assertions they have put their stamp of approval on equipment that could be classified as risky or unproven.

“Each of the three systems recently certified in North Carolina have been certified, tested, used and audited in many other states,” said Patrick Gannon, spokesman for the state Board of Elections.

Gannon also rebuffed claims that any of the newly authorized systems would leave the state vulnerable to computer hacking, citing the recent Mueller report’s finding that “no non-Internet connected election system was penetrated in the 2016 election.”

“As required by law, none of the systems certified in North Carolina are connected to the Internet,” Gannon said.

He said that at the state elections board’s meeting on Tuesday morning, staff will present a report answering in detail questions about the recent certification process.

Elections Systems & Software spokeswoman Katina Granger said in an email that all the company’s voting equipment “contains robust security and encryption features that safeguard the vote.”

©2019 the News & Record (Greensboro, N.C.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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