Elections Board examines a voting machine

Watauga Elections Board members test a voting machine in October 2018. From left to right: Board members Jane Ann Hodges, Nancy Owen, Eric Eller, Richard Rapfogel and Elections Office Executive Director Matthew Snyder.

WATAUGA — The State Board of Elections on Aug. 23 certified voting systems by three vendors for use in North Carolina elections that counties can now consider to replace aging voting machines.

The three voting systems that were approved were ClearVote 1.4 by Clear Ballot, the EVS 5.2.2.0 by Elections Systems and Software and Verity Voting 2.2 by Hart InterCivic. According to the state board, its consideration of new voting systems was spurred in part by state laws prohibiting the use of touch-screen, direct-record-electronic devices that do not produce paper ballots beginning this December.

“The 2020 election will be the first time in decades we have an election where every voter will cast a paper ballot,” said state board Chair Damon Circosta in a statement.

Most counties will continue to use hand-marked paper ballots fed into tabulators at the polling place as the primary voting method. Elections systems currently certified in North Carolina — including the M100 and DS200 precinct-based ballot scanners and vote tabulators used to count paper ballots — remain certified, according to the state board.

With the state board’s approval, counties have the option of testing out equipment to ultimately decide which voting systems are best for their county’s voters. Watauga County Board of Elections Director Matt Snyder said the office will have to discuss with the vendors whether they are able to test out the equipment without approved funding from Watauga County.

The Watauga County Board of Elections request of $196,640 to the Watauga County Board of Commissioners for new voting equipment was not approved for the 2019-20 fiscal year, according to Snyder. It would not be until the 2020-21 fiscal year that the Watauga County Board of Elections would know if the county would approve funding for new equipment.

Before a county’s board of commissioners can approve the adoption and acquisition of a voting system, the county board of elections must complete a few tasks, according to Karen Brinson Bell, the North Carolina State Board of Elections executive director. The board must witness a demonstration of the recommended type of voting system plus at least one other certified type of voting system, make a preliminary recommendation to the commissioners as to which type of voting system should be acquired by the county, the equipment must be tested in at least one precinct where the voting system would be used, seek State Board approval to replace the current voting system and finally submit a recommendation to the commissioners.

“The state and county boards of elections will take steps to ensure that voters are educated on any new systems used in their counties in 2020,” Bell said in a statement.

Snyder said Watauga County currently uses one of the previously state board-approved systems: a M100 scanning device that’s manufactured by ES&S, an Automark system for access and participation to voters with disabilities and the Unity system that stores the data. Snyder said the county has been using this equipment for about 12 years.

The useful life of voter equipment is typically about 10 years, Snyder said. While the equipment is aging, Snyder said voters can be assured that it functions properly and there shouldn’t be any doubt as to who people voted for or how votes are tabulated.

When looking at new equipment, Snyder said the county board of elections would take several things into consideration: user friendliness for poll workers, aspects of the equipment’s security measures, system support, reliability and cost. Snyder was unsure if the county would be able to test all three of the recommendations, but said he knew there would be interest from the board in doing so. He added that the county board of elections would be looking for feedback from other counties to see what systems they use and what new recommendations they prefer.

Snyder said he’s familiar with all three of the recommendations, as they are used all over the country. However, he had not done any in-depth research on each of them yet. The state board stated that it hosted a public demonstration of the voting systems in July 2018; a public comment period was held from July 27 to Aug. 10, 2018. Board members also witnessed a demonstration of the voting systems at a board meeting on July 28.

“Because no voting system is entirely free from vulnerabilities, the state and county boards continue to implement safeguards throughout the elections process to ensure voting systems function properly and produce reliable results,” according to the state board of elections.

More information on the N.C. State Board of Elections can be found at www.ncsbe.gov.

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