One thing county officials in North Carolina hate more than anything is “unfunded mandates” – and boy is Guilford County being hit with a whopper of one this year.
Unfunded mandates are, just as the name suggests, when the state mandates that the counties or municipalities do something without handing over funding to pay for it. By the end of the year, Guilford County, due to a change in state law, must spend an estimated $7 million to $8 million to purchase new voting machines even though the ones the county has are working just fine.
Guilford County Commissioner Jeff Phillips said this week that, as tight as county funds are right now, that cost could do real damage to Guilford County’s current construction plans.
“If we’ve got to spend $8 million this year on new election machines, some other capital project will likely be put on hold,” Phillips said.
Under the state law that goes into effect this year, all 1,430 of Guilford County’s touchscreen voting machines would have to be discarded – even though they’re in perfectly good working order – and the county would have to purchase new machines to replace them.
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 and those machines would no longer be allowed. Though they create a paper record, some people argue that direct-recording machines are more susceptible to hacking than other types of voting machines.
The state just got a new NC Board of Elections last week after not having a state board of elections at all for a month. A Thursday, Jan. 31 press release from the new elections board on the first day of its existence made it clear that one of the primary orders of business would be deciding specifically what types of machines would be approved for use after the end of the year. It read: “The State Board must evaluate new voting equipment for formal state certification so county boards may purchase new machines to replace aging ones.”
State Rep. Jon Hardister said he’s looking into the matter to see if something can be done not just to help Guilford County but all counties that may face a financial burden due to the legislation. He said that, on one hand, it’s important for counties to have up to date voting machines, but, on the other, there may be some way the state can help mitigate the financial pain.
Guilford County, as one of the state’s largest counties, is one of the hardest hit.
Guilford County Board of Elections Director Charlie Collicutt said this week that, as it stands now, the county will be required to have new equipment by 2020.
“After December, I can’t use what I currently have,” he said.
He also said that new machines must, by law, be tested before being put into use; so that means field testing some new machines in elections this fall. According to Collicutt, that means the state board has to let the counties know soon what machines are certifiable.
“As of now, the only thing that is approved is using a paper ballot and running it through a scanner,” he said.
The machines Guilford County now uses were purchased in 2006 and Collicutt said there are from time to time problems that arise with some of those machines but he added that he has no concerns about the machines’ integrity.
“From a security point of view, I am very confident,” he said.
Collicutt said 2020 would be a major election year and he said one can think of the situation as that of taking a cross country trip in a car. He said it’s always nice to have a brand new car with low mileage to make the trip, but he added that people can also make the same trip in an older car with less expense if they put some money into getting everything checked and repaired so the car is in good running order.