With the March 3rd primaries just around the corner, the state elections board has OK'd upgrades to a newly approved voting system, allowing the vendor to bypass a lengthier certification process.
The decision raises concerns for some voting advocacy groups that say hand-marked ballots are more secure than software-based touch-screen systems.
In August, the board certified three new voting systems for use in 2020. That's when almost two dozen counties can no longer use their outdated touch-screen systems. But after certification, the vendor ES&S notified the elections board it could only provide a fraction of the units ordered by some counties, including Mecklenburg, unless the board approved an upgraded model of its ExpressVote ballot-marking device, the 22.214.171.124.
Mecklenburg County has 195 precincts and wanted to obtain 2,400 ES&S ExpressVote ballot-marking devices. Voters feed blank ballots into these units and make their selections using a touch-screen. After confirming their choices, the unit spits out the ballot with a bar code at the top followed by the names of the candidates selected by the voter. Then, as with counties that use hand-marked ballots, the voter takes the ticket and feeds it into a tabulator, also manufatured by ES&S.
Under state law, all voting systems used in North Carolina must now provide a paper record of the voter's choices. Even touch-screen systems must provide a marked ballot that is fed into a tabulator to count the vote. Most of North Carolina's 100 counties use hand-marked ballots.
"We should not be acting and proceeding in a manner as if our back is up against the wall, because it is not," said Stella Anderson, one of Democrats on the state elections board.
Anderson pointed out that counties like Mecklenburg could just resort to using hand-marked ballots, which advocacy groups like the League of Women Voters prefer as a more secure way of tallying votes.
Part of the concern with approval of the newer 126.96.36.199 is its capacity to be used as a hybrid, all-in-one ballot marker and tabulator. In this hybrid mode, according to a letter written by Marian Schneider, president of the non-profit advocacy group Verified Voting, the system "eliminates a critical component of evidence-based elections: the opportunity for the voter to verify that the marked paper ballot accurately reflects her choices."
"Without that essential component of election security, jurisdictions run the risk that reported outcomes are incorrect and that such errors will be undetected," Schneider said in her letter sent to the state elections board on Friday.
But North Carolina State Board of Elections Director Karen Brinson Bell addressed such concerns in her comments ahead of Friday's vote.
"The ExpressVote in this version is still only a ballot-marking device that will print the voter's selections on the ballot card," said Brinson Bell. The ballot card would then be fed into the tabulator to be counted, the same two-step process as with hand-marked ballots.
Board member Stella Anderson and fellow Democrat Jeff Carmon voted against approving the upgraded system but were outvoted 3-2 by Chairman Damon Circosta, also a Democrat, and the board's two Republicans, Ken Raymond and David Black.
Circosta did admonish the system vendor as well as critics of the touch-screen devices.
"I'm disappointed with ES&S, who in their zeal to sell their product have lacked candor and not been forthcoming with this agency," Circosta said.
"You know, I'm also disappointed with some members of the advocacy community, who, in their zeal for a particular voting system, have attempted to scare voters into thinking that our elections won't be secure unless we choose their particular path," he added.
In an email response to WUNC's request for comment, ES&S Spokeswoman Katina Granger said: "ES&S is pleased to have received approval for certification of ExpressVote voting system 188.8.131.52 in North Carolina, and has equipment in inventory and will be able to distribute quickly to customers."
"There are no operational differences between this version of ExpressVote and the version already certified in the state," she added. "EVS 184.108.40.206 simply addresses various end-of-life hardware components and improves the overall manufacturability of the ExpressVote to ensure availability for several years to come."
Board Chairman Circosta noted elections officials are pressed for time for a host of reasons, including litigation over gerrymandering that delayed the completion of voting district lines until this month.
Candidate filing closes on December 20, early voting begins in February and Primary Election Day takes place March 3.