Michael Dickerson’s voice rippled with the excitement of someone showing off a new sports car.
"This screen will now come up with every ballot, every precinct, every ballot style on it, and I can tap that screen and that gives that person that ballot," he said, his voice trailing off to a hush full of wonderment.
Dickerson is the Mecklenburg County Board of Elections director. He was demonstrating a touch-screen voting machine manufactured by Election Systems and Software, or ES&S. The electronic ballot-marking device emits a ticket with the names of the selected candidates and a bar code at the top. Those tickets are then fed into tabulators.
Early voting for North Carolina’s Super Tuesday primaries, on March 3, begins next month. Almost a quarter of North Carolina's counties will be using new elections equipment to replace outdated touch-screen systems that were de-certified by the state in December. The certification of new machines raised questions that set two of the state's largest counties on divergent paths.
Voters in Guilford and Mecklenburg had both been using machines made by Ivotronics to cast ballots for more than a decade.
The Direct-Recording Electronic touch-screen systems were all-in-one ballot marking and vote-counting machines. But a 2018 change to state law required that all new systems produce a paper ballot that a voter can check.
Guilford County Elections Director Must Contend With 'Pallets And Pallets Of Ballots'
In August, the state elections board certified three new voting systems, including the ES&S machines, that counties could use starting this year. Alternatively, counties could opt for using hand-marked ballots filled out by voters and fed into tabulators on the way out the door, the method used most widely across the state.
But Dickerson said rather than having to print up more than 100 ballot styles needed for all the various lineups of federal, state, and local races in each precinct, every ballot style can be programmed into the ES&S touch-screen units. That’s a big deal for one-stop early voting sites, which are not precinct specific and, thus, must have every possible ballot style on hand.
"The voting machine is the voting machine and a little memory card, about the size of your thumb, and that's all I need for each one,” said Guilford County Elections Director Charlie Collicutt.
“Now I'm doing big bulky scanners and pallets and pallets and pallets of ballots," he added, sounding a bit envious of Mecklenburg Elections Director Michael Dickerson and the new machines they’ll be using.
In Guilford County, three Democrats outvoted two Republicans on the five-member, appointed Board of Elections to opt for using hand-marked paper ballots.
"You know, with all the talk about rigged elections and not having any faith in the elections, we felt this was the very best way that the voters in our county would have the most confidence in the outcomes of the elections in our county," said Jim Kimel, Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Elections and one of its three Democrats.
Kimel said the decision to revert to using hand-marked ballots versus a touch-screen system was influenced by public comment at Guilford County elections board hearings.
"We had a number of people who professed not to have confidence in the touch-screen--they wanted to mark their own ballot so that they would know who they voted for," he said.
Some Advocacy Groups Push For Using Hand-Marked Ballots
In its investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 elections, the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee concluded that aging voting equipment with no paper record was vulnerable to exploitation.
So when the state elections board held public hearings last year on the possible certification of new systems, advocacy groups such as the League of Women Voters and the NAACP came out in force to push for hand-marked ballots.
Unlike Guilford, Mecklenburg's elections board, which also has a Democratic majority, unanimously decided to ask the county for around $10 million to purchase 2,400 state-of-the-art machines for its 195 precincts.
People who vouch for the new touch-screen systems say they're not hooked up to the Internet and, therefore, not vulnerable to hacking.
But that's not exactly true, according to Richard DeMillo, who teaches computer science at Georgia Tech University, is a former chief technology officer at Hewlett Packard, and an outspoken critic of touch-screen voting machines.
"The developers of these machines are using servers that are themselves connected to the Internet and their teams are scattered around the world using email and FTP and all kinds of Internet tools to develop the software,” he said. “So each one of those steps is an opportunity for malware to be transferred from some adversary to the voting system."
Still, electronic ballot-marking devices of some kind will be in use in every county across North Carolina to comply with federal law protecting disabled voters.
Guilford and Mecklenburg counties tested their respective new voting systems at certain polling sites during last November's municipal elections and all indications are the changes are no big deal to the average voter. According to elections officials from both counties, voter feedback was mostly positive.