Election officials closely watching state vote on voting systems Friday as 2019, 2020 races loom

Updated: Aug. 21, 2019 at 5:15 PM EDT
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SOUTHEASTERN NORTH CAROLINA (WECT) - Along with everything else it takes to prepare for the upcoming 2019 municipal elections, and the 2020 primaries close on their heels, election officials in southeastern North Carolina are also waiting to see what kind of equipment they will be able to use.

On Friday, the North Carolina State Board of Elections is expected to finally make a decision that will dictate what machines voters use to cast a ballot.

Most of the attention has been focused on the state’s move away from touchscreen equipment that only generates an electronic ballot, as counties across North Carolina wait to see what equipment will be approved for them to buy.

New Hanover County is also waiting for the state’s stamp of approval for the replacement of its outdated voting equipment.

New Hanover County last purchased ballot tabulators in 2006, explained county board of elections director Rae Hunter-Havens.

Republican and unaffiliated voters in the 9th Congressional District cast ballots Tuesday to...
Republican and unaffiliated voters in the 9th Congressional District cast ballots Tuesday to decide which GOP candidate will face Democrat Dan McCready. (Source: WECT)

Those machines typically have a lifespan of just 10 years — and they are starting to show their age.

"We’ve exceeded that end-of-life projection,” Hunter-Havens said, and that means increasing mechanical issues.

The M-100 machines, which she said see the most use, are increasingly sensitive to humidity. Printers often jam, or the machines will refuse to read a ballot even if it is properly marked.

Even though these problems wouldn’t influence the results of an election, she said, they are a problem because they can slow down a precinct on Election Day, or require the use of emergency bins.

"It’s mainly mechanical issues that don’t affect the outcome, but just have to be dealt with,” she said, “[It’s] things that you want to avoid doing so you make sure voters have sort of a seamless process as they turn out to vote.”

On top of the inconvenience for poll workers, Hunter-Havens said issues with voting systems can cause voters to have less confidence that the election is fair and accurate.

That’s why they are hoping to get new machines in place as soon as possible; if not before the 2019 municipal race, at least ahead of the 2020 primaries.

“I think we just want to make sure that as we move into the elections for 2020, that we have voting equipment that will not break down, that we’re not having to replace during the day, that we really are able to reaffirm and make sure that we maintain voter confidence in the elections process,” she said.

"So, I think having that voting equipment that’s not breaking on you, where you’re not having to use the emergency bin, all those things I think help reaffirm confidence in the system itself.”

In order for that to happen, the two replacement machine types the county board has selected — and the New Hanover County Commission has approved $987,000 for the purchase of — have to get the green light from the NCSBE, even though the models are already on the state’s “approved” list.

Hunter-Havens said she and her team will also be watching for what the state decides about a replacement for the iVotronic DRE machine — a touch screen voting system that does not produce a paper ballot, but rather records an electronic vote.

The North Carolina General Assembly voted to de-certify that type of machine, effective Dec. 1, but so far the NCSBE has not approved a vendor for its replacement.

The change is expected to cost counties nearly $10 million statewide. Wilmington alone will be paying an additional $18,000 for the upcoming municipal races due to the need to print additional paper ballots.

While there are already other ADA-compliant systems out there at are approved by the NCSBE, many counties are waiting to find out what the options are before making a purchase.

New Hanover only uses the iVotronic for voters with a disability who need an ADA-compliant machine, but both Brunswick and Pender counties still use the system for all types of voting.

Sara Knotts, director of the Brunswick County Board of Elections, said she and her team are watching the state board’s actions closely.

NCSBE Secretary Stella Patterson and board member David Black attend a meeting of the board...
NCSBE Secretary Stella Patterson and board member David Black attend a meeting of the board in-person on August 1, 2019.

Right now, they are moving forward with the testing process for the replacement machines, and they expect to conduct a public demonstration of the new systems at the board’s Sept. 17 meeting.

Then, if things continue moving forward, they will test out the new machines during the upcoming municipal elections.

Elections staff from Pender County could not comment on the issue at this time.

The state board has been debating what voting systems to authorize for the better part of 2019.

In June, the board voted to delay a decision and require potential vendors to provide a more detailed disclosure of company ownership.

Then, in July, the board postponed a decision again after a multi-day meeting ahead of the state’s annual election conference.

After the board chair resigned due to controversial comments, the board waited until a new member was appointed and officers chosen to take up the issue once again.

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