Accord may be near on voting machines

Staff writerOctober 30, 2010 

The state Republican Party and North Carolina elections officials may have worked out an agreement that will provide voters who use touch-screen voting machines with written advice to double-check their votes.

But no one is talking about it until a rare weekend court hearing today before a U.S. District Court judge.

"I can't until Judge [Malcolm] Howard has the hearing," state GOP Chairman Tom Fetzer said.

Fetzer filed a lawsuit Friday asking a judge to require poll workers to tell people using the electronic machines about problems that could lead them to make selections they don't intend. The suit gives examples of voters who said they had to correct machines three times to cast their votes for Republicans, as they intended, rather than Democrats.

According to the State Board of Elections, 35 counties use the iVotronic machines for one-stop voting. Wake, Durham, Orange, Johnston and Orange counties still use paper ballots read by an optical scanner.

Early-voting turnout is high for a mid-term election. By Friday morning, nearly 700,000 people had cast votes at one-stop sites.

Early voting ends today, and Election Day is Tuesday.

Lawyers for the GOP and the State Board of Elections explained their positions before Magistrate Judge David Daniel late Friday afternoon.

Thomas Farr, the GOP's lawyer, said state elections staff had not adequately addressed problems of improperly calibrated machines that they had known about for days.

"We want to avoid a major train wreck so we don't have a Florida-type situation in North Carolina," he said.

Susan Nichols, a special deputy Attorney General representing the board, said stickers are on all machines to remind voters to check their choices, and voters review their votes before they're recorded and are given a paper record of their votes afterward.

'One more notice'

The state and local elections boards already are doing nearly everything the GOP wants, Nichols said. There's no evidence of malfunctions or programming errors, she said. Some of the problems can be attributed to voter error, she said.

Nichols resisted creating a written notice for voters because such a warning could undermine confidence in the elections.

Daniel separated the two sides and met with each in private to mediate an agreement. Before the state, the GOP and Daniel left for about two hours of private meetings, Daniel told Nichols he was not persuaded by her argument. "What harm does it do to give one more notice?" he asked.

None of 15 early voters queried Friday at Charlotte's Hal Marshall Center Annex reported experiencing problems with the county's touch-screen voting machines.

Two voters, however, complained about the "instant runoff" voting instructions for N.C. Court of Appeals candidates. The ballot asks voters to choose first, second and third choices among the 13 candidates if a runoff is needed. Some voters found that confusing.

"The machine seemed fine," voter Bobbie Parks said. "It's the structure of the ballot. That seems a little tricky."

Bill Ashendorf had to ask a poll worker for help interpreting the ballot but said he'd neglected to read the fine print.

"I'm afraid I got what I voted for," he said, chuckling.

Bruce Henderson of The Charlotte Observer contributed to this report. or 919-829-4821

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