On paper

August 10, 2010 

Does North Carolina need a new system of printing ballots? The votes aren't all in yet, and the current system may need only tweaking, rather than another fresh start. But two recent N&O news stories point out practices that should have no place in our elections system.

First, a bit of history. In 2005 the state adopted a uniform voting system. The move responded to congressional concerns over the 2000 presidential election debacle in Florida and to electronic balloting irregularities here in 2004 - thousands of Carteret County votes were lost. The result was a state law strengthening election integrity. Eventually, a single supplier, Election Systems & Software of Omaha, equipped all North Carolina precincts with electronic machines that tally paper ballots.

It's the printing of those ballots that has become an issue.

Last Friday, The N&O reported that a New Bern outfit called Printelect, whose owner has been a generous contributor to state Democratic officeholders, prints the ballots for 86 of the state's 100 counties. Printelect is affiliated with ES&S but other printers can win contracts as well, as they have in Wake and Durham counties, which pay far less per ballot than Printelect's customers do.

And yet Gary Bartlett, head of the state Board of Elections, put it out in a 2006 memo that Printelect has "the first right of refusal" for county ballot-printing contracts. That's actually not the case, says Printelect's owner - but local officials might well think they're boxed in.

Here's a sample ballot for reform:

Should the Elections Board make it absolutely clear to county officials that they're free to contract for ballots with other suitable suppliers? Check.

Should vendors seeking business from elections officials do so up-front, in the office, and not on company-provided boat trips or in "hospitality tents"? Check.

Should owners of companies holding state contracts be forbidden from contributing to political campaigns (a move legislators recently rejected)? Double-check.

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