Politics & Government

NC ballot officials vote against new election-security rules, citing 2020 time crunch

North Carolina elections officials voted down a proposal Friday to require stricter anti-hacking provisions in the 2020 elections and beyond, upsetting advocates for election security.

The State Board of Elections approved in a 3-2 vote three new types of voting machines that counties will have the option to buy.

The main difference among them, and the source of much controversy, is whether voters will be using machines that create paper records they can review after they vote to ensure accuracy, or if they will only see a bar code.

The machines from one of the approved companies will generate paper ballots with bar codes that contain the list of names.

Board of Elections member Stella Anderson, who proposed banning bar codes last month by requiring “human-readable” records, brought it up for a vote at the board’s meeting.

More than 20 people spoke Friday, from voters to election experts and software programmers. All of them opposed the use of bar codes — except for Will Wesley, business development manager for ES&S. The bar code receipts produced by the ES&S machines includes a list of the candidates the voters selected.

“The ExpressVote is proven technology,” said Wesley said. “It’s been employed in over 1,200 jurisdictions in the United States.”

But critics say it’s possible for a hacker to change the barcode so it has a different list of candidate names. And while people can’t read that barcode, it’s the only thing the machine reads to tally the votes.

”We have heard voters don’t like this, voters do not trust this,” said Anderson, a Democrat.

However, she was not able to convince the rest of the board. Jeff Carmon, also a Democrat, voted for her motion. But the board’s two Republicans, David Black and Ken Raymond, voted against it. So did Elections Board Chairman Damon Circosta, a Democrat. The motion failed.

The board went on to approve ES&S machines in a 3-2 vote. They also unanimously approved machines by Hart InterCivic and Clear Ballot, which use hand-marked ballots.

Circosta was recently named the board’s chairman. The previous chairman, Bob Cordle, resigned after telling an inappropriate joke at a meeting.

Circosta said he has heard from numerous county election officials around the state who are fed up with the board’s lengthy debates about which machines to approve. Time is running out to get new machines in place before the 2020 elections, and Friday’s votes came after years of discussion.

The delays in the decision affect about a third of the counties in North Carolina that don’t currently use paper ballots. All counties in the Triangle use paper ballots that are hand-marked by voters.

But voters in some of North Carolina’s largest cities, including Charlotte and Greensboro, use the paperless touchscreen ballots that are losing their certification at the end of the year.

What comes next

As the board’s decision has drawn out, some lawmakers have floated the idea of delaying the end of the paperless machines and allowing them to be used in the 2020 elections after all.

But Circosta said after Friday’s meeting that he’s “100% committed” to having paper ballots in the 2020 elections and sees no problem with the ES&S machines.

“I have confidence in the security of a barcode ballot,” he said.

Circosta emphasized that he wants to continue discussions about cybersecurity.

”Anytime you introduce technology into a system, you need to have procedures to ensure that technology is safe,” he said.

As it stands now, ES&S is the only company certified to provide election machines in North Carolina. Circosta said after the meeting that the board’s certification of three companies will give counties flexibility.

A voting rights issue?

The idea to ban bar codes and ensure people can verify their votes was supported by voter advocacy groups, including the North Carolina chapters of the NAACP, Common Cause and the League Of Women Voters, in addition to several state and national election-security advocacy groups.

Carmon, the board member who sided with Anderson’s proposal for stricter security, is black. He said he was thinking of his grandfather — who wasn’t allowed to vote for much of his life because of the color of his skin — during Friday’s meeting. He said because of the way his grandfather was treated, he sometimes called elections “rigged,” and Carmon doesn’t want voters to still feel that way in 2020.

“Voting was very precious to my grandfather,” he said. “Having the right to vote, and knowing that your vote counted, is extremely precious to me.”

Lynn Bernstein, an aerospace engineer, is an advocate for stricter election security in North Carolina. Bernstein said the fight now shifts to the county level, where local officials will ultimately decide which machines to buy. She said she doesn’t want them only hearing from state officials and the voting machine vendors.

“The job of advocates on the ground is going to be to educate county officials,” she said after Friday’s meeting. “Because the information that they’re basing their decision on unfortunately has come from sources that they should trust. But for some reason there’s a lot of confusion about the facts.”

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