Politics & Government

NC elections board to reconsider voting machines after initial decision to delay

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new developments

North Carolina election officials cited lingering concerns over election hacking in explaining why they again delayed certifying new voting machines for the 2020 elections Monday.

“Trust and confidence in the security of any voting system that we put in place in North Carolina is absolutely vital,” said Stella Anderson, the board member who proposed the delay Monday night.

However, after a sudden about-face announced Tuesday, that Monday night decision might be short-lived. The board has scheduled a new meeting for Thursday at 11 a.m. On the agenda: to consider undoing Monday night’s vote and then immediately pushing ahead with a final vote on certifying new machines.

Monday, at Anderson’s suggestion, the board voted to add new language to the state’s rules specifying that any voting machines used in North Carolina “shall produce human-readable marks on a paper ballot.”

That decision would have pushed back the process until at least mid-August, due to a legal requirement to give the public at least two weeks of notice for the meeting. The five-member board, with a majority of Democrats, was sharply divided and approved the decision 3-2 with a bipartisan vote.

Anderson and fellow Democrat Jeff Carmon voted with Republican member David Black to delay the decision. The board’s chairman, Democrat Bob Cordle, opposed the delay, as did Republican member Ken Raymond.

Cordle and Raymond say the delay has them concerned about a time crunch.

The voting machines used in about a third of North Carolina’s counties will be certified at the end of this year. Cordle and Raymond said any further delays will harm the counties that need to figure out which new machines they want to use in 2020.

“We have counties that are looking at decertification of equipment,” Raymond said. “We have vendors who have been in this process several years and have run a virtual gauntlet. For us to continue to delay it, I think that’s not the right thing to do.”

But Carmon cited the Mueller Report’s section on 2016 election hacking by Russian spies, which has led officials to believe North Carolina was at least targeted, if not actually hacked.

Specifically, federal officials are investigating whether the software used to check in voters in Durham County in 2016 was hacked.

“This vote wasn’t taken lightly,” Carmon said. “Our state’s been in the news enough.”

Anderson, Black and Carmon want to add new language to the state’s rules specifying that any voting machines used in North Carolina “shall produce human-readable marks on a paper ballot.”

That’s in response to concerns raised by members of the public, including at a Sunday night meeting, that some of the machines in question would only produce a barcode printout — which most people wouldn’t be able to read to make sure that the touchscreen machine had correctly recorded their vote.

The delays affect about a third of the counties in North Carolina that don’t currently use paper ballots. All counties in the Triangle already use paper ballots, but voters in some of North Carolina’s largest cities, including Charlotte and Greensboro, use the paperless touchscreen ballots that are losing their certification at the end of the year.

Rev. T. Anthony Spearman, the North Carolina NAACP executive director, is from Guilford County and attended Monday’s meeting. He said afterward he considers the paperless machines to be “atrocities.” He is glad the state is making sure it takes every precaution in selecting a new machine.

Spearman said the delay doesn’t bother him since it’s being done to address cybersecurity concerns.

“I am significantly pleased with the vote of the board,” he said.

Lynn Bernstein, a Wake County resident who has advocated for paper ballots, said after the meeting that she agrees with the vote to delay the decision.

“It allows North Carolina to have the most secure elections in the United States,” she said.

But Cordle, the board chairman, told the board he is worried about what the delay means for local officials scrambling to make arrangements for 2020.

“I think the counties are going to be running into a real problem,” he said.

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Will Doran reports on North Carolina politics, with a focus on state employees and agencies. In 2016 he started The News & Observer’s fact-checking partnership, PolitiFact NC, and before that he reported on local governments around the Triangle. Contact him at wdoran@newsobserver.com or (919) 836-2858.