Back to the future? Mecklenburg County planning to go to paper ballots by 2020

What kind of machines will voters use?

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

Next year Mecklenburg County will join governments throughout the country in going back to the future — by trading electronic voting machines for paper ballots.

This year’s election was the last statewide balloting in which county voters will use the 2,223 touchscreen machines they’ve used since 2006. Those devices will still be used for next year’s municipal elections but voters will see new machines in the March 2020 primaries. New equipment is expected to cost the county more than $15 million.

The requirement for paper ballots, part of a wide-ranging 2013 N.C. voter law, came in response to the threat of hacking. The threat was underscored in 2016 when the U.S. Department of Homeland Security reported that 21 states had their election equipment combed by Russian hackers. North Carolina was not among them, according to DHS.

For 12 years Mecklenburg has used machines known as direct recording devices, where voters make their choices on an electronic screen. Unlike some such devices, the county’s have a paper trail, that is, a backup record that can be used for recounts.

At the end of Election Day, officials carry cartridges from the machines back to a central office where the results are tabulated. Machines are not connected to the internet. The technology dates from the early 1990s.

“Ours are simply tabulators,” said Mary Summa, who chairs the Board of Elections. “I think a lot of people are confused about that.”

There have been complaints about the county’s current machines. Some voters said the touchscreen devices did not record their correct choices. Elections pulled the machines and blamed mechanical issues.

Like many states, North Carolina has a patchwork system of voting equipment.

Mecklenburg is one of 21 counties that use the iVotronic direct record machines, according to the State Board of Elections and Ethics. All the others use some kind of paper ballot system.

What equipment Mecklenburg ends up with depends in part on what wins the certification of state elections officials. Four vendors are seeking certification.

All of the systems use paper. At least one would have voters insert a ballot into a machine and mark their choices on a screen. Completed ballots would then be scanned into a second machine. Other systems require voters to mark the ballots by filling in ovals like on standardized school tests and then scan the ballots into a tabulator.

That’s like the system used in Cabarrus County.

“We love paper ballots,” said Cabarrus Elections Director Carol Soles. “If we have a recount or any questions we can go back to the actual ballot the voter filled out.”

Garry Sims, elections director in Wake County, said, “Most everybody here likes the fact that they’re holding a piece of paper in their hands.”

But sometimes paper has its own problems.

This month, vote counting in Wake County was slowed by humidity, which caused paper ballots to jam in tabulators. But other systems also had problems. In Florida’s Palm Beach County, machines overheated during crucial statewide recounts.

County officials say the costs for a new system depend on what they get. Along with equipment costs they’re looking at the expense of up to 1 million paper ballots, according to Kristin Mavromatis, the election board’s public Information manager.

The county would acquire the new system next year and use it in 2020, the year N.C. voters will cast ballots for president, U.S. senator, governor and virtually every other state and federal office.

Keith Weatherly, chairman of Wake County’s election board, said voters as well as election workers will need training on a paper system. Mecklenburg Elections Director Michael Dickerson is well aware of that.

“That’ll be my biggest concern,” he said, “to make sure we educate voters.”

Soles, the Cabarrus elections director, said she believes voters will like it.

“With all the things you’re hearing in the media about security and voter fraud,” she said, “when they hear about paper ballots it puts them at ease.”

Jim Morrill, 704-358-5059; @JimMorrill