Opinion

NC is voting on obsolete machines. That should change before 2020

Voters line the machines at Precinct 008 at Myers Park Traditional School during a recent primary. DAVID T. FOSTER III-dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com
Voters line the machines at Precinct 008 at Myers Park Traditional School during a recent primary. DAVID T. FOSTER III-dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com Observer file photo

Think back to the technology you owned in 2004: If you had a laptop, it was almost certainly more than an inch thick. There’s a good chance you used AOL to connect to the Internet. The iPhone was still three years away from release.

You’re probably not using any of that equipment today. But one-third of North Carolina voters still use computers from that era to cast their votes each Election Day. It’s past time to get rid of this obsolete technology, and North Carolina has been on track to do so ahead of the 2020 election. But now, the North Carolina legislature is considering proposals to kick the can down the road once again.

That’s why today my organization, Protect Democracy, sent a letter demanding that the North Carolina State Board of Elections make clear that, regardless of how the legislature proceeds, it will not approve the use of obsolete iVotronic machines in the 2020 elections. Counties should immediately begin preparing for a transition to a modern, secure voting system.

The iVotronic touchscreen machines used by some North Carolina counties — including Mecklenburg and Guilford — are about 15 years old. They’re having all of the problems you would expect from old equipment, including faulty touchscreens and a tendency to break down on Election Day. They’re also unnecessarily susceptible to hacking attacks that could be used to change votes. And if they fail, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to verify how votes were cast.

In contrast, two-thirds of North Carolina voters — including in Orange County, where I live — use what security experts call the “gold standard” for secure elections: hand-marked paper ballots. The advantages of this voting system are numerous: As long as they are stored securely, hand-marked paper ballots are a tamper-proof record of voters’ intended selections. They can also be audited after an election to make sure that the optical-scan machines used to read the ballots counted the results accurately. And when voter demand grows, it is relatively easy to set up new voting stations. It’s not so easy, or affordable, to buy new machines.

Despite these clear benefits, the counties that use iVotronic machines have been dragging their feet on obtaining a more reliable voting system. The legislature has already extended the deadline to replace the obsolete machines twice, and they are considering doing so again. If these proposals pass, the North Carolina State Board of Elections will be allowed to grant counties permission to use the iVotronics in 2020 — a crucial election in which North Carolinians will be choosing a governor, a senator, members of Congress, members of the state legislature, a number of new judges, and, of course, a president.

This isn’t fair to voters in the iVotronic counties. In fact, it violates their rights under the U.S. and North Carolina constitutions. Voters have a constitutional right to have their ballots counted accurately, and not to be disadvantaged compared to other voters in the state. Continued use of the iVotronic system endangers both of those rights. And states that have continued to use unsecured, out-of-date voting equipment have faced lawsuits, including a case filed by Protect Democracy in neighboring South Carolina.

Over the last year, North Carolina has learned just what it means when the results of an election are called into question. Absentee ballot fraud in NC-09 led to an expensive investigation and another round of elections. If we were to see problems with iVotronic voting machines in 2020, the controversy and chaos would be immeasurably worse. It’s critical for the state to send a clear message to the counties: It’s time to replace your old machines, and you need to start doing that now.

Jessica Marsden is Counsel at the nonpartisan nonprofit Protect Democracy. She lives in Carrboro, NC.
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