Politics & Government

Is NC rushing into major election changes? Some officials warn of confusion in 2020

Roughly a third of North Carolina voters use electronic machines with no paper ballots. But that might all change next year for the 2020 presidential election.

Supporters of the change say it will help ensure election security, especially given reports from the FBI and other sources that the Russian government attempted to influence America’s 2016 elections and may have hacked into some U.S. voting software. But the switch has been held up for years, despite first being ordered in a 2013 law.

Now, some officials — including the new state elections director — worry that there’s not enough time left to get new voting systems in place for the 2020 elections.

The state’s biggest county, Mecklenburg, is one of the counties that will have to make the switch away from touchscreen voting machines. But officials there still don’t know what machines they might be allowed to buy as replacements, or how much they’ll cost. Meanwhile, the deadline to get new machines in place is coming up at the end of this year.

“It’s just hard to plan,” said Kristen Mavromatis, the spokeswoman for Mecklenburg County’s elections board. “And every day that goes by, it’s terrifying.”

Answers could come soon, though. The N.C. State Board of Elections plans to meet Thursday and consider certifying one or more companies to provide voting machines in North Carolina. Three companies are vying for certification: Election Systems & Software, whose machines are used now, Clear Ballot and Hart InterCivic.

But election officials in Mecklenburg say no matter what the board decides, there’s just too much to change, and too little time to do it.

Nearly every city in North Carolina has municipal elections scheduled for sometime this fall. Election officials in the counties with electronic voting will have to oversee those municipal elections, and then get new machines purchased, tested, and then taught to poll workers as well as the general public. They may find themselves working around-the-clock when they might have otherwise been off for Thanksgiving and Christmas, even if there are no recounts. Then, the 2020 primary elections are in March.

“Demonstrations, public feedback, all those things we have to do .... do we have time to do everything between now and next March?” said Michael Dickerson, Mecklenburg County’s elections director. “March is going to be almost immediately, and by mid-January I’m already mailing out ballots. So realistically, I’ll have eight weeks.”

Karen Brinson Bell, the new statewide elections director, realizes the concerns.

“We are trying to empower the county boards of elections to do what best serves their voters,” she said in a written statement Friday, in her first week on the job. “There certainly is a compressed time frame between now and the March 2020 primary. However, these voting systems have been certified by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission and been through the state’s rigorous certification process.”

Also in her first week, Brinson Bell visited an elections committee at the legislature. While there she made several requests, the first of which was to delay the date when the electronic touchscreen machines will have to be phased out. She didn’t say specifically when the new date ought to be, although she did note that the touchscreen machines are already fairly old.

“We would have probably replaced our personal computers three times in the time we’ve had this voting equipment,” she said.

There have been complaints in the past of touchscreen machines potentially changing people’s votes, but such complaints are rare — typically fewer than one in every 10,000 ballots cast, officials told the News & Observer during the 2018 elections. In some cases, the age of the machines has been blamed for poor calibration; other times it was simply a voter’s own mistake.

Brinson Bell emphasized the state’s focus on cyber security during her meeting with lawmakers — particularly in light of news about a federal investigation into whether Durham County was affected by Russian hacking in 2016 — and the state elections board website says paper ballots are a good way of ensuring the accuracy of election results:

“Most counties already use paper ballots, which provide a paper trail that can be used in the event questions arise about results.”

Dickerson said he just wants one more year.

The fact that 2020 is not only a presidential election year, he said, but also the first year of the state’s new voter ID law, will cause enough potential confusion without also having to roll out an entirely new way of voting.

“The goal would be to delay it until December of 2020,” Dickerson said. “That gives you a leisurely pace.”

Mavromatis said local officials simply worry that between the legislature’s looming deadline for change by this December, and the fact that the state still hasn’t decided which companies will be allowed to sell voting equipment, there won’t be enough time to make the switch and educate voters.

“We’ve voted electronically for 25 years, so it will be a major change for us,” she said.

Regardless of if there’s a delay, Brinson Bell said the state will help county officials educate voters on whatever new systems are in place.

“The county boards of elections are also required to conduct public demonstrations of new equipment, and state and county elections officials would take additional steps to educate voters on any new systems,” she said.

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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.
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