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Guilford County, N.C., Makes Move Back to Paper Ballots

The Guilford County Board of Elections decision will mean a return to manually completed ballots and a move away from touchscreen voting machines, which came with concerns about fraud and security.

(TNS) — Come February, Guilford County voters will be picking their candidates in the primary elections using hand-marked paper ballots rather than computer touchscreens.

The Guilford County Board of Elections opted Tuesday for a new voting system that relies on ballots filled out by pen-wielding voters to replace Guilford's current system that's no longer usable after Dec. 1.

The board split 3-2 along party lines in rejecting the ExpressVote system, which uses a touchscreen terminal to record votes but also produces a paper ballot that displays choices in both written text and computer bar code.

Critics of that new touchscreen technology said it was vulnerable to fraud, difficult to audit and did little to resolve the suspicions of voters that their choices might be recorded incorrectly.

"It seems as though the public has lost confidence in bar codes and would prefer hand-marked ballots," board Chairman Horace "Jim" Kimel said. "From a public perception standpoint, that seems to be a valid request."

The decision means that county Elections Director Charlie Collicutt and his staff must move quickly to test one of the new machines at a single precinct during the Nov. 5 municipal elections taking place this year in High Point and several other Guilford County communities.

Then they will have to purchase, learn how to use and deploy the new equipment for early voting in the 2020 primaries starting in February. Although the ballots are marked by hand, they are then fed into a computerized tabulator where votes are actually counted.

Tuesday's vote split along party lines with Democratic board members Kimel, Carolyn Bunker and T. Anthony Spearman prevailing.

Republican board members Kathryn Lindley and Eugene Lester cast the dissenting votes. They asserted that the ExpressVote system was more cost effective and just as verifiable by the individual voter as paper ballots.

Both systems are made by the same vendor, Elections Systems & Software, the county's current supplier of election equipment.

In other action, the board pleased a group of about 75 students from N.C. A&T who attended the afternoon meeting by approving their campus for an early-voting site during the 2020 primaries.

Students told the board that the lack of a campus voting site suppressed turnout among student and black voters.

In another 3-2 vote along party lines, the board approved a slate of 15 early-voting sites, including new primary-election sites on both the A&T and UNCG campuses.

Lindley said she voted against the plan mainly because of the increased cost of adding that many early-voting sites to the nine Guilford hosted in 2016 — the last presidential election year when about 32,000 residents voted early.

"That means we're going to spend somewhere in the vicinity of $550,000 for 35,000 voters," Lindley said.

The board also approved an early-voting schedule for the 2020 primaries spanning more than two weeks, beginning Feb. 12-14 followed by a weekend break and then continuing through Feb. 28.

Primary Election Day is March 3 next year, with the general election set for Nov. 3, 2020.

The need to replace Guilford's roughly 1,400 current voting machines stems from a change in state law that requires the use of paper ballots voters can inspect for accuracy.

Guilford's existing voting equipment does not comply with that specification, using instead a touchscreen terminal where voters make their selections and submit them. Under North Carolina law, those machines can no longer be used in just less than two months.

Proponents of hand-marked balloting contended it was the only true way to meet the requirement for a review-able paper ballot in a way that instilled voter confidence.

Cost estimates had ranged up to $8 million to purchase another touchscreen system that is compliant with the new paper ballot standard.

Collicutt said the cost for the hand-marked system will be less than than its touchscreen counterpart, but he did not know by how much.

The hand-marked system costs less initially, but its operating costs are higher per election because officials must print thousands of ballots for each election, Collicutt said.

Tuesday's board vote actually was not to buy the Elections Systems & Software hand-marked system outright, but to test it in the Nov. 5 municipal elections and to proceed if the equipment performs acceptably.

Collicutt said the law requires that each new system be tested in an election before it is finally approved for local use, and the upcoming municipal contests are all that remain before Guilford's current equipment must be replaced.

He described Tuesday's vote as a "defacto final decision" because of that limitation.

"If the test is successful, then the board makes a recommendation to the county commission to enter into a contract with the vendor," Collicutt said.

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