Some states revolt against the federal government to protect what they call “states rights,” and, on Thursday, Nov. 7, Guilford County commissioners led a revolt of their own.
They stood up and protested a move by the state legislature that’s forcing Guilford County – and about 20 other North Carolina counties – to spend millions of dollars on unneeded new voting machines.
The NC General Assembly has seemingly given Guilford County no choice but to buy the new voting machines – but it became crystal clear Thursday night that Guilford County may not go along with the state’s demand.
Commissioner Justin Conrad was nothing short of outraged over the state’s move that would cause Guilford County to scrap millions of dollars worth of perfectly good and well-functioning voting machines. He spoke forcefully against the move.
“If the General Assembly thinks they can do a better job running the elections, they can come on into Guilford County and do it,” Conrad said.
He said later, “If we allow this, we’ve essentially allowed a useless half a cent increase on our property tax – useless.”
(A half-cent tax increase is roughly what it would take to fund the cost of the new machines.)
Other commissioners agreed.
Commissioner Hank Henning said at the meeting that, when asked to approve the move later this month, he would absolutely vote no. Henning said the move flies in the face of common sense.
“I agree with Justin,” Henning said from the dais. “I’m going to vote no anyway because there’s nothing wrong with our machines and we shouldn’t be wasting millions of dollars.”
During and after the meeting, other commissioners from both parties also spoke negatively of the state’s move. No commissioner spoke in support of buying the new voting machines.
So, even though a state law goes into effect at the end of the year requiring a new type of voting machine for the 2020 elections, it’s not clear where the Guilford County Board of Commissioners will find the votes needed to buy new machines that meet the legally mandated criteria.
Guilford County’s touchscreen machines are of a style known as “direct-recording” machines that tabulate the votes electronically from the touchscreen’s buttons. Though they create a paper record and aren’t connected to the internet, some people argue that these types of direct-recording machines are more susceptible to hacking than other types; so the state’s plan – at least it looked like the plan until Thursday night – was for Guilford County to move to paper ballots that are scanned by machines at polling places.
Those machines would meet state guidelines and the county conducted a test of one of those tabulating machines at one precinct in the Tuesday, Nov. 5 election.
The revolt came near the end of the Nov. 7 meeting when Guilford County Manager Marty Lawing informed the commissioners that county staff would be bringing the purchase to the board for approval at the commissioners’ next meeting on Thursday, Nov. 21, since the county had no choice but to purchase new machines.
Estimates in the past have been that the move would cost about $7 million; however, Lawing said, that number now looks like it will be closer to $4 million. But the commissioners didn’t seem to care if it was $7 million or $3 million or $2 million, because they weren’t interested in spending a dime on what they see as a pointless expense.
Commissioner Jeff Phillips wasn’t at the meeting but he has in the past been a vocal and major opponent of the state’s move to force the county to buy new machines this year.
Henning said after the meeting, “I’m watching out for our best interest and someone tells me I have to spend millions on machines that aren’t broke.”
As to the fact that Guilford County wouldn’t be in compliance with state law, Henning said, “So we’re supposed to follow the law – but the last time I checked they have a balanced budget amendment. They’re supposed to balance the budget by the fiscal year and start a new one. They’re not even following their own policies, but we’re supposed to?”
Conrad said state legislators were notified of all the problems with this new law.
“The question is very simple: Why didn’t they fix it?” Conrad asked.
Commissioner Alan Perdue also said it doesn’t make any sense for the county to spend millions for no good reason. He said another change in voting machine criteria is coming in a couple of years “and there’s nothing wrong with what we have right now.”
“If you want to hack ours, you’ve got to go in and physically access the machine,” Perdue said. “It’s just a practical common sense issue.”
Carolyn Coleman, Democrat, pointed out the Republicans were in the majority in the General Assembly and she said some of the Republicans on the Board of Commissioners needed to talk to the Republicans in Raleigh. Conrad said he already had and pointed out that the county had also sent a letter noting the absurdity of the required change. He said the General Assembly had every opportunity to fix this and didn’t and he wanted to know why he should penalize the people of Guilford County for the wrong-headed move.
Coleman said, “If we don’t do it, as a board, they are going to come charge all of us.”
Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Alan Branson said of the state legislators at the meeting: “They can’t even get a budget passed – how are they going to figure out how to fix this.”
Conrad, a Republican, took on his own party after the meeting
“I thought we were the party that was against unfunded mandates – this is an unfunded mandate,” he said. “What happened? The elections director said there was no problem with our machines. There were no irregularities whatsoever. They have a paper backup. What is the problem?”
When Conrad asked what will happen if the board does refuse to purchase the new voting machines, he said. “I don’t know, that’s a good question.