Politics & Government

NC elections board votes to proceed with effort to change voting machines

NC elections official talks paper ballots and plans to replace chairman

NC Board of Elections member Stella Anderson speaks with the media Aug. 1, 2019 about plans to require paper ballots from voting machines used in North Carolina, and plans to replace former elections board chairman Bob Cordle, who resigned Tuesday.
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NC Board of Elections member Stella Anderson speaks with the media Aug. 1, 2019 about plans to require paper ballots from voting machines used in North Carolina, and plans to replace former elections board chairman Bob Cordle, who resigned Tuesday.

North Carolina elections officials voted Thursday to go ahead with plans to strengthen the state’s laws around voting machines to require “human-readable” paper records.

That’s in reaction to hacking and cybersecurity concerns surrounding touchscreen voting machines.

The Mueller report and other intelligence reports have recently indicated that Russia targeted US elections systems in 2016 in multiple places. A federal investigation into whether Durham County was hacked in 2016 is still ongoing.

“There are a number of concerns that have come to light that we did not know we were dealing with,” Board of Elections member Stella Anderson said at a meeting earlier this week. She then proposed requiring all North Carolina voting machines to “produce human-readable marks on a paper ballot.”

“Voters can have confidence that we are very carefully making this decision,” Anderson said after Thursday’s meeting, adding: “We have to get this right.”

About a third of the counties statewide — including Mecklenburg and Guilford, but not anywhere in the Triangle — use touchscreen voting machines instead of a pen and paper to cast their ballots. But those machines will be phased out at the end of 2019, due to a state law requiring paper records for all votes in all elections in 2020 and beyond.

Some new touchscreen machines are being considered by the state elections board, since they also produce paper records.

But the definition of a paper record contains some wiggle room, at least for now.

Some machines produce receipts that look like a paper ballot, so that voters can confirm that the machine didn’t change who they wanted to vote for. Others produce bar codes, which the typical person wouldn’t be able to use to confirm that his or her vote was correctly recorded.

So the NC Board of Elections will meet again on Aug. 23, board members decided Thursday, to vote on Anderson’s proposal that voting machines in North Carolina must “produce human-readable marks on a paper ballot.”

“At that meeting, we will allow public comment,” Anderson said Thursday.

Anderson, who is also an Appalachian State University professor, is temporarily serving as the board’s chair until Gov. Roy Cooper picks a replacement for Bob Cordle, the former chairman who resigned Tuesday night after making a sexist joke at a conference.

The use of human-readable paper records has turned into a partisan issue on the elections board. Anderson and fellow Democrat Jeff Carmon support the idea. The board’s two Republican members, David Black and Ken Raymond, do not.

Black and Raymond have both said the timing isn’t right.

Micheal G. Dickerson, director of elections, talks about what type of voting machine will be used in Mecklenburg County in future elections.

With the current touchscreen machines becoming invalid at the end of this year, they both oppose any delays in the board’s vote to choose new machines. Once the board does choose, county-level officials all over the state must decide which machines to use. And the state could see officials rushing to get new machines in place by the 2020 primaries in March.

Michael Dickerson, the Mecklenburg County elections director, told The News & Observer nearly two months ago that he feared time was already running out.

“Demonstrations, public feedback, all those things we have to do .... do we have time to do everything between now and next March?” he said, adding that he hopes the legislature pushes back the timeline for the current touchscreen machines and allows them to be used in the 2020 elections.

Black said he still thinks paper records are a good idea for the state to take up at a later date, but not now, “at a time when were are in a sense of urgency.”

Black originally voted with Anderson and Carmon for the changes on Monday, but he then asked for Thursday’s meeting to be called so he could reverse his vote. Cordle had also opposed the delay, so it looked like Anderson’s proposal would be shot down. But with Cordle gone, Thursday’s meeting ended in a 2-2 tie. That meant the original vote from Monday, to make the change, would stand.

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Will Doran reports on North Carolina politics, with a focus on state employees and agencies. In 2016 he started The News & Observer’s fact-checking partnership, PolitiFact NC, and before that he reported on local governments around the Triangle. Contact him at wdoran@newsobserver.com or (919) 836-2858.