On Monday, Feb. 25, Guilford County Commissioner Hank Henning nearly gave the county manager, the county attorney and the county elections director a simultaneous heart attack with a single question.
The county commissioners had spent the entire morning discussing ways to pay for a host of multi-million dollar county projects the county needs, and now it had arrived at a multi-million dollar project the commissioners don’t think it needs at all: the purchase of $8 million worth of new voting machines.
Guilford County currently has all the voting machines it needs and they’re in good working order but state law disqualifies the type of machines the county uses at the end of 2019. Guilford County’s touchscreen machines are of a style known as “direct-recording” machines that tabulate the votes electronically off of the touchscreen’s buttons. Though they do create a paper record, some argue that direct-recording machines are more susceptible to election hacking than other voting machines. State legislators have bought into the argument – and the machines Guilford County has used without any significant issues for a decade and a half will no longer be certified by the end of the year.
At the retreat, the commissioners were trying to think of ways to address the situation. Some suggested that state legislators might allow an extension, while others thought those legislators may be willing to completely reconsider the directive. County staff suggested possible funding sources where the county might find the $8 million to pay for the new machines.
Which is when Commissioner Hank Henning – an outspoken independent thinker who despises mindless bureaucracy and who never met a pointless unfunded mandate he liked – stepped in with his question that stopped everyone in their tracks.
Henning started out by saying that there was “nothing wrong with these voting machines” and he added that the machines aren’t online so the supposed hacking threat seems to be zero.
Then he asked his question.
“What if we refuse to pay for them?” Henning said.
What if, he continued, the county just saved $8 million, kept on business as usual without following the directive.
Guilford County Attorney Mark Payne’s face went pale at the question and he stammered a little when he answered.
“You’re policy argument is good,” a somewhat uncomfortable Payne said, “but, in response to your question, the consequences – they’re not good. They’re bad.”
Payne said the elections conducted on the machines would be invalid in the eyes of the state.
“And you can’t not have an election,” Payne added – though no one had even suggested doing away with elections entirely.
Guilford County Board of Elections Director Charlie Collicutt also clearly didn’t show up at the meeting expecting Henning’s question. Like Payne, Collicutt didn’t seem to think it was the very best idea to just politely ignore changes in state election law. Collicutt said that if he ran an election with decertified voting machines then he wasn’t sure if those results would be certifiable at even the local level.
Henning said at the meeting that he was asking the question to make a point, but he didn’t say whether that point was that Guilford County should secede from the state.