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Humidity, ballot size cause issues with voting machines in North Carolina, officials say

State, Wake and Cumberland county election officials are encountering some problems with machines failing to read ballots, thanks to humidity and the ballots’ size, but said that all votes will be counted.

Tuesday morning, the state said high humidity levels had been reported at Wake County poll sites, according to a news release from the N.C. State Board of Elections.

Wake County Board of Elections Director Gary Sims said there is “nothing wrong” with the current tabulators. But the problems aren’t limited to humidity. He said some are due to the ballots’ 17-inch length.

“We’ve never had a 17-inch ballot and level of humidity we’re having today,” he said at a Tuesday afternoon press conference at the Wake County Board of Elections office.

Sims said the Board of Elections is anticipating the completion of ballot results by 11:30 p.m. Tuesday night. The polls close at 7:30 p.m.

Mid-day, he said issues were reported at 15 precincts earlier in the day with eight still being resolved.

Elections officials said they want to assure voters “that procedures are in place for these types of events,” according to the Board of Elections release.

The poll sites with problems are in the northern part of Raleigh and Wake County and in polling places at fire departments and gymnasiums that are not as air conditioned as other polling places, Sims said. That includes Optimist Community Center in Raleigh, which also experienced humidity-related problems during early voting, Sims said.

“When ballots cannot be read by tabulators, they are stored securely in ‘emergency bins’ and will be tabulated as soon as possible,” the N.C. State Board of Elections said in the release.

Sims said Tuesday that the bin is built into the ballot boxes. During slow periods, poll workers will enter the ballots into machines, he said, or if it is busy, they will do enter the ballots after polls close.

“Our goal is to have those ballots read,” Sims said.

Similar problems were reported in Cumberland County, where machines at 4 to 5 precincts “would not accept ballots when the voters tried to insert them,” The Fayetteville Observer reported.

An audit performed by the state board after elections ensures the number of signed voter authorization forms matches the number of ballots turned in at each precinct, according to the state.

Cary voter Nancy Harrell, who lives in Precinct 04-12 in Wake County, has been voting at Crossroads Ford Service Center for 20 years. Tuesday morning, she was there to vote between 8:30 and 9 a.m. and said she saw more than 15 voters struggling to get the machine to accept their ballots.

When it was her turn, the machine did not accept her ballot, so she said she kept trying. Harrell said that poll workers chased down some voters who left before their ballots were successfully entered in the machines. After several tries, her ballot went in.

“I didn’t see an ‘emergency bin’ — no one mentioned an emergency bin,” Harrell said. “So we just stood in line until they were accepted by the ... machine.”

“I tried to put it in and they tried to tell me exactly how to do it, but if you’ve voted before you’ve done it many times. I put it in, it wouldn’t accept it, it beeped and I tried again,” she said.

Wake County isn’t the only county in North Carolina with ballot issues at a fire department polling place.

Charlie Johnson told The News & Observer Tuesday afternoon that he was very concerned after voting at the fire department in downtown Littleton, in Halifax County. He said that his ballot and those of several others were not accepted by the voting machines, and poll workers told him that it was because of the humidity.

“So they just put the ballots in a slot under the machine and said, ‘We’ll count them later,’” Johnson said. “I have never experienced anything like that before, and it’s alarming.”

Johnson has voted there for the past 14 years, and this is the first time he’s encountered a problem.

“I take my time when I vote — I look at everything about three times. So I stood at the table for a long period of time, and everyone that went up was getting the same response (from the machines),” he said.

Sims said that Wake County will upgrade the county’s voting machines, in place since 2006, after the election. They will be funded in the capital improvement plan, he said.

A tabulation issue

Michael T. Morley, assistant professor at Florida State University College of Law, said the humidity problem is a tabulation issue, not a vote casting issue.

“So worst-case scenario, election results are just delayed,” Morley said.

He said that many states use voting machines that meet election equipment guidelines from the U.S. Elections Assistance Commission. Equipment is tested under different conditions. He said he hasn’t heard of humidity-related tabulation issues in Florida. And it wouldn’t be an issue if voting machines in North Carolina were electronic, Morley said.

In 2017, Wake County elections officials said high humidity affected tallying votes in the Raleigh municipal elections, according to a previous News & Observer story. The elections board didn’t post results for some precincts until about 11 p.m., which is later than usual.

This story is part of a journalism collaboration with ProPublica’s Electionland, a project that monitors voting problems across the country.

Here’s how to report voting problems or malfunctions today.

People reacted to today’s malfunctions on social media, some expressing concerns and suspicions.

Poll site confusion

Confusion led to some voters being turned away from a polling place in Clayton, the Johnston County Board of Elections said.

People have voted at The Church at Clayton Crossings in the past during early voting, but the location is not their assigned polling place for Election Day, Johnston County Elections Director Leigh Anne Price told The News & Observer in an interview.

“The confusion is that the church is used as an early voting site,” Price said. “People have been asking about it all day long.”

Price said that issue is typical there and at the other two early voting sites in Johnston County – at the First Baptist Church Ministry Center in East Smithfield and the Johnston Community College Cleveland Campus.

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: 919-419-6563, @dawnbvaughan
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