North Carolina election officials were supposed to certify new voting machines on Thursday for millions of voters to start using in 2020.
But they declined to make any decisions, citing uncertainty over who owns the three companies that were seeking approval to sell voting machines here. The state gave them until next week to divulge everyone who owns at least 5 percent of their companies or any parent or subsidiary company.
“I believe this follows along with the cyber security concerns we have found in the Mueller report and other documentation that has been furnished to our board,” Robert Cordle, the chairman of the State Board of Elections, said Thursday when the board announced its surprise decision.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report indicated that a company that provides voting software in some North Carolina counties may have been compromised by Russian hackers in 2016. That company’s software can’t be used to change or record votes; it only deals with checking voters in to the polls.
State officials have been asking for answers since April, shortly after the Mueller report came out. And the federal government is now investigating if the well-publicized problems on Election Day in Durham County that year might have been the result of foreign interference, instead of just human error as local officials believe to be the case.
Several voting rights advocates had come to the meeting Thursday to ask the board to delay its decision.
“Our democracy is at risk,” Marian Lewin, of the League of Women Voters in Wake County, told state election officials at Thursday’s meeting. “Faith in government at all levels is at an all-time low. Our vote is the foundation of our democracy. Trust in elections is one of the most important issues facing our country.”
As for the issue of who owns the companies, the elections board did not discuss their reasoning beyond Cordle’s brief statement.
But last year, Maryland election officials found themselves in the headlines after a Russian oligarch with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin bought a voting software company Maryland used.
That company is not one of the three that was seeking approval in North Carolina.
One of those three, Elections Systems & Software, is currently the only company that provides voting machines in North Carolina. The other two seeking approval for the 2020 elections and beyond are Clear Ballot and Hart InterCivic.
Owen Andrews, the president of a company called Printelect that works for ES&S in the Southeast, said after the meeting Thursday that he was not expecting the decision but that the company would be happy to comply.
”There’s no foreign ownership that I’m aware of,” he said.
Thursday’s vote adds another delay to a process that already has been dragging on for years.
State lawmakers in 2013 passed a new law requiring every county in the state to use voting machines with a paper record. That could include either a paper ballot, or a touchscreen ballot that produces some sort of physical proof of what the voter chose.
The deadline for that switch is the end of this year, when the machines used by about a third of voters in North Carolina — notably in places like Mecklenburg and Guilford counties, but not Wake or Durham — will be de-certified.
Elections officials have raised concerns that they won’t have enough time to buy, test and teach about new machines before the 2020 primary elections in March. The state elections board has asked the legislature to delay the date when the old machines will have to be phased out.
Some voting rights advocates and other members of the public had attended Thursday’s meeting to ask for a delay in the board’s decision on certification, although the issue of who owns the companies only came up briefly. Mostly their concerns were more technical, and focused on such issues as whether the type of paper used would truly last without fading for as long as federal law requires it to be stored.
Some were also concerned over whether the paper receipt would look like a ballot — which would give voters a chance at their polling place to double check that the machine didn’t change their votes — or whether it would look like a bar code, just a jumble of lines and spaces.
Some said there shouldn’t be any sort of touchscreen voting allowed at all, even if the machines did produce a paper bar code or a paper ballot afterward. Lynn Bernstein, who described herself as an aerospace engineer with a passion for election security, said that “cyber security and elections experts are in near-unanimous agreement on the use of hand-marked paper ballots.”
But Cordle replied that, “There are problems with all systems, I think.”
“In many years on this board, we had more problems with hand ballots than any other ballots,” Cordle said.
That debate will live on for another day. The state board wants to see the companies’ financial disclosures by next Friday, and officials have not yet scheduled another vote for once they have that information.
During the meeting, the election board’s new executive director, Karen Brinson Bell, made the recommendation to delay the vote due to what she called “ongoing cyber security concerns.”
She elaborated in a written statement after the meeting, saying that “we also want to give voters more time to learn about the vendors and products seeking certification.”