Board of elections split on paper records for voting machines

After resignation of board chair, board is split on measure to increase voting credibility

FILE PHOTO: NC State Board of Elections, Anita Earls (left) and Robert Cordle, take part in a hearing at the Clarion Hotel in downtown Raleigh on Oct. 27, 2009. More witnesses were to be called Tuesday as part of the board's public hearing investigating Easley's campaign committee and the state Democratic Party. (AP Photo/Chris Seward, Pool)

RALEIGH — The state’s board of elections on Thursday declined to decide whether new voting machines should be required to furnish a paper printout so voters can read and confirm their ballots.

The indecision by the state’s top elections regulator comes as the board’s chairman abruptly resigned Tuesday after after opening a statewide meeting of elections officials with a joke about cows and women who don’t want to have sex. In a resignation letter, Robert Cordle apologized for making the joke and Gov. Roy Cooper accepted Cordle’s resignation.

The board had voted Monday to delay certification of voting machines until August to consider requiring the “human-readable marks on a paper ballot” as a security measure. But they soon backtracked and set up the Thursday meeting where they again did not make a decision. Cordle had favored approving some or all of the voting machine vendors without requiring the paper records.

One-third of North Carolina’s 100 counties must replace their current touch-screen voting machines after this year’s elections. The counties buy the machines but only from those vendors approved by the state Elections Board. The decision on the paper records may determine which vendors are eligible.

Some voters, supported by elections board member Stella Anderson, want to add a new requirement that ballot machines produce a readable document, not just a barcode, allowing voters to confirm their “intent as evidence by the mark on the ballot.”

That’s in line with recommendations from a study released last year by the combined National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine.

“Elections should be conducted with human-readable paper ballots,” the report said. “Recounts and audits should be conducted by human inspection of the human-readable portion of the paper ballots.”

The committee found that “the most significant threat to the American elections system was coming, not from faulty or outdated technologies, but from efforts to undermine the credibility of election results,” the report said. “Unsubstantiated claims about election outcomes fanned by social and other media threaten civic stability.”

At least two of the three companies being considered by the elections board — Clear Ballot of Boston and Hart InterCivic of Austin, Texas — seem to meet Anderson’s proposed new requirement. Equipment marketed by Omaha, Nebraska-based Election Systems & Software also prints a paper copy allowing voters to confirm their choices, but what tabulating machines actually read off the ballot are bar codes.

The state elections board heard during a hearing last weekend and through other contacts that some voters want a requirement for new machines to count what humans can see, not bar codes.

“I think that it is right to suggest a rule says that the thing the voter is verifying is not a pony show. That is the vote,” said Josh Lawson, until three months ago the state board’s top lawyer. “It shouldn’t be that someone selects it, presses verify on the screen, it prints, and they even look at it. They’ve done everything right. But never have they been able to audit what their actual vote is. Because their actual vote is that bar code.”

The U.S. Senate Intelligence committee last week released a report concluding all 50 states were targeted by foreign adversaries in 2016 and that “top election vulnerabilities remained” ahead of last year’s election. Special Counsel Robert Mueller warned during a congressional hearing last month that Russian election interference was ongoing even today.

A decision on the future of voting machines in North Carolina is not on hold until the board’s Aug. 23 meeting. It’s not clear when Gov. Roy Cooper will appoint a new member to the five-member elections board, where Democrats like the governor hold a majority.

Senator Ralph Hise (R-Mitchell), who chairs the Senate Committee on Redistricting and Elections, said the board of elections is keeping more than 20 counties in limbo and he blamed Cooper for the delays. Cooper sued after the General Assembly passed laws requiring an even number of board members with no partisan advantage. Cooper ultimately won the lawsuits and was allowed to have a Democratic Party-controlled board with 3 Democrats and 2 Republicans.

After taking control of the board, the new board fired long-time executive director Kim Strach with a party-line vote. “The weak company line for firing Kim Strach was that the Board needed to ‘refocus on elections administration,’” said Hise. “But months after they fired Strach, the Board can’t even agree on what type of equipment to use for voting. Instead, the focus has been on scandals consuming the Board’s leadership and firing a qualified woman. The Board needs to get its act together and decide on voting equipment so counties, including mine, can finally get to work on prepping for the elections.”

Hise called the current situation with the board a “disaster” and noted that the board would soon have it’s fourth chair under the current structure. Anthony Penry resigned last December after he made partisan social media posts. Cooper then appointed Josh Malcolm as chair but Malcolm ultimately declined to accept the position.

On Wednesday, Hise and Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett) sent a letter to Gov. Cooper recommending Gerry Cohen, a former General Assembly staff attorney who is currently a Democratic member of the Wake County Board of Elections.