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Board Of Elections Moves Ahead With Electronic Voting Systems

Sample voting machines. North Carolina elections officials are deciding which voting machines are cleared to use the state.
Rusty Jacobs

Updated Aug. 27, 2019

The North Carolina Board of Elections will not require county boards to use hand-marked paper ballots in upcoming elections.

In a split vote Friday afternoon, the board certified three electronic voting systems, including ones that print a paper ballot based off selections voters make on a touch screen. Current electronic systems, like those used in Mecklenburg, for example, keep a paper record on a spool that looks like a grocery store receipt, but not on individual paper ballots that are printed out for the voter. These machines will be decertified on Dec. 1. The new machines print a ballot with names of the voter choices and with an associated bar code for those choices.

Board Secretary Stella Anderson said the decision leaves North Carolina at risk for election hacking. She argued that humans can't read a barcode, which could leave voters less than certain that their votes will be marked properly.

"When we move to systems that put a computer between a voter and their ballot, we have to acknowledge, we're taking some risks," Anderson said.

Other ballots use hand marking. A voter receives a paper ballot with bubbles next to candidates and fills in the bubble next to the choice. A machine then reads the bubbles on those ballots in a way that's similar to filled in bubbles on many high school tests.

More than 20 people spoke against electronic voting systems during the meeting saying they open the state up to tampering. A representative of voting machine vendor Electronic Systems & Software spoke in favor of allowing balloting without a paper trail. 

Election security advocates raised concerns about the equipment marketed by Omaha, Nebraska-based Election Systems & Software because while it prints a paper ballot for voters to check, what tabulating machines actually read are undecipherable bar codes.

After hackers tried to access U.S. election systems in 2016, a study by national science and engineering experts urged "human-readable paper ballots."

North Carolina has been working for about two years on which voting machines to allow for use over the next decade or longer.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story did not distinguish between paper and hand-marked paper ballots.

Jason deBruyn is the WUNC health reporter, a beat he took in 2020. He has been in the WUNC newsroom since 2016.
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