Opinion

Keep the human factor in counting NC votes

Voters line the machines at at Myers Park Traditional School during the 2008 primary. Mecklenburg County is among one-third of N.C. counties that use touchscreen voting machines. A new law will require that the machines generate a paper ballot voters can review.. (Charlotte Observer file photo.)
Voters line the machines at at Myers Park Traditional School during the 2008 primary. Mecklenburg County is among one-third of N.C. counties that use touchscreen voting machines. A new law will require that the machines generate a paper ballot voters can review.. (Charlotte Observer file photo.) Observer file photo

It seems obvious that when North Carolina voters cast their vote they should see a paper ballot showing their selections. But one-third of North Carolina counties — including Mecklenburg, but not any in the Triangle — are still using touchscreen voting machines that leave the recorded vote unclear to the voter and vulnerable to outside manipulation.

The General Assembly recognized those weaknesses in 2013 when it passed a law that will require all voting machines used in the 2020 election and beyond to generate a paper ballot. But this being North Carolina and the subject being voting, this basic safeguard is turning into a dispute.

For counties that still want to use touchscreen technology, the board must certify which voting machines counties can purchase that will meet the paper ballot requirement.

The five-member State Board of Elections is temporarily split between two Republicans and two Democrats because of last week’s resignation by former Board Chairman Bob Cordle, a Democrat. The two Republican members want to approve a touchscreen machine that generates a paper ballot that accompanies each selected candidate’s name with a bar code that is read by an electronic tabulator. The two Democrats want all voting machines to generate a paper ballot with “human-readable marks,” such as a filled-in bubble. The board will vote on the requirements at its next meeting on Aug. 23.

Tight schedule

Republicans David Black and Ken Raymond say the bar code option should be acceptable because counties that still want to use touchscreen machines need to get moving on buying the machines for the next election. Democrats Stella Anderson and Jeff Carmon say the voting machines the board certifies this year could stay in use for decades, so it’s worth taking special care now in setting requirements.

Gov. Roy Cooper should replace Cordle, who favored the bar code option, with someone who will support paper ballots in which the selections read by the electronic tabulator can also be read by the voter. It’s not simply a matter of accuracy, it’s a matter of strengthening voters’ trust that their votes are properly recorded.

Black and Raymond say they support paper ballots that are fully readable by humans, but the timing is too tight to insist on that for the machines now under consideration. It’s curious that the Republican board members are stressing expediency over public confidence.

Why wouldn’t Republicans who want all voters identified by a photo ID also want to ensure that voters can in turn identify their ballot selections?

Voting issues

The human-readable vs. bar code record is a technical issue that points to two much larger problems.

First, why is the voting process still divided among a variety of machines offered by private vendors? The process and machinery of voting should be universal, if not nationally at least statewide.

Second, what does it take to get Republicans to apply the same scrutiny to how people vote as they do to verifying who is voting? President Trump has waved off concerns about Russians meddling in U.S. elections. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has blocked several bills that would help states protect the election process from foreign hackers.

Requiring paper ballots that clearly show all North Carolina voters their selections won’t solve these larger issues. But it’s a step toward reassuring voters about the integrity of the election process.

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