By: Margaret Lowry

Super Tuesday is tomorrow and voters in North Carolina might use new voting machines. Since the 2018 election, several counties in North Carolina have had to make a critical decision for their voters–what voting machines should they purchase? A shortened timetable and heightened concern about election security have made for a contentious process.

A 2013 bill required all voting systems in the state to produce a paper ballot, and set a schedule to decertify existing machines that did not meet the requirement. Originally, the bill set the decertification date as January 1, 2018, but subsequent legislation in 2015 and 2018 pushed the deadline to December 1, 2019.

About one-third of the counties in North Carolina have Direct Record Electronic (DRE) voting systems that will need to be replaced by the decertification date. DREs are paperless. Voters use a touchscreen to select their choice, and the machine then stores and tabulates that choice electronically.

Despite being aware of the certification change since 2013, these counties have had to make their final decision on a quick timeline. The State Board of Elections didn’t certify new equipment until late August. Obtaining the new equipment will be expensive. The Brennan Center for Justice estimated that the entire endeavor will cost the state between $4.9 and $7.7 million, but some counties are estimating that the new machines would put them out $10 million. The cost largely depends on which machine counties choose to purchase.

The Board approved three different vendors, including Election System & Software (ES&S), which came under fire early last year when remote-access software was discovered on some of its machines. While no breach of ES&S’s machines was found, it left the machines susceptible to interference.

The ES&S machines approved in North Carolina are also sparking controversy. ES&S’s new ballot-marking devices allow voters to use a touchscreen to mark their candidate of choice. The machine then prints a paper ballot that includes a barcode and text indicating the voter’s choice. Concerns have been raised as to the use of the barcode to tabulate votes because of the added step that would be required in a recall or audit. Auditors for the machines producing barcodes would have to first ensure that the barcode captured the correct selection, and then that the correct information was pulled from the barcode. The additional step would make it necessary for different counties to enact different audit procedures.

The two other certified vendors, Hart and Clear Ballot, both distribute machines that electronically count hand marked ballots. Advocates, and many community members, believe that having human-readable paper ballots are key to keeping elections safe and audits feasible. Election integrity groups active in the state, including the NAACP and the Coalition for Good Governance, have made it clear that they do not support the use of the barcode voting machines. Both have warned that they will not hesitate to bring litigation should the machines be used in the 2020 election.

At least one precinct tested the barcode machines in the November municipal elections. Election officials at the precinct said they’d had no complaints about the voting process, but the security and auditing concerns that have been raised about barcode ballots remain and the precinct may yet face litigation for their choice. Stay tuned.

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