The North Carolina Board of Elections decided on Thursday, June 13 not to certify any new voting machines. About 30 percent of the counties in the state including Guilford will have to purchase new voting machines to comply with state law requiring paper ballots for the 2020 elections.

Back in 2013 the North Carolina Legislature passed an elections law which included the requirement that all counties use paper ballots marked by the voter and that portion of the law is set to go into effect in December, 2019.  It seems like in the intervening six years, someone in the legislature might have decided that the state should join the 21stCentury where everything is becoming electronic.

In an era where people regularly pay for items with their phones and self-driving vehicles are becoming a reality, at a time when people no longer go to the bank or write checks because their paychecks are electronically deposited and they pay their bills online, the state legislature decided that people should vote with paper ballots.

It is incredibly anachronistic.  People communicate with text messages and emails.  When was the last time the average person sat down with a piece of paper and pencil and wrote a letter?

The fear is that some foreign agent will hack into the elections system and tamper with the results. Did the legislature never hear the term “stuffing the ballot box.”  The term is still used even in the world of electronic voting, but it comes from people actually putting additional paper ballots into the box.  Election tampering is not a result of electronic voting.  It has been around as long as there have been elections.

The 2000 disputed presidential election in Florida involved counting and recounting paper ballots. People do all kinds of weird things with paper ballots.  They circle the name instead of coloring in the bubble, or black out one name and put a check mark by the other.  If it can be done with a pencil and a piece of paper, it has been done on a ballot and then an elections official has to decide whether the voter made their intentions clear or not.

In the North Carolina 9thCongressional district where the results were not certified and a new election is being held, the problem was largely with the paper absentee ballots.

In an infamous write-in campaign for mayor in 1997, people actually took pens and wrote the candidate’s name on the screens of the voting machines.  Unfortunately for the candidate those votes didn’t count.

Guilford County uses touch screen electronic voting machines, but they can’t be hacked in the normal sense of the word because they are never connected to the internet. Guilford County Director of Elections Charlie Collicutt said the voting machines aren’t capable of being connected to the internet either by wire or wi-fi.

The votes are collected on an electronic cartridge.  Those cartridges are then physically taken to the Board of Elections office and read by another computer that is never hooked up to the internet and spends nonelection days locked in a vault according Collicutt.

The Guilford County touch screen voting machines also produce a paper record of each vote cast.  It would seem like that paper record would be enough to satisfy people who don’t trust these “newfangled” computer thingamajigs. But according to the state statute Guilford County will have to purchase new voting machines at a cost of about $8 million, so that the voter marks the ballot.  But the law allows a machine to actually mark the ballot at the direction of the voter and then once the ballot is marked the voter will take it out of the machine and put it in a ballot box.

The ballots in the box will then be counted by another computer.  In other words, the paper ballots are not going to be counted by hand, so if the worry is that some foreign entity could hack into the voting machines, why couldn’t they hack into the ballot counting machines.

Even if the North Carolina Board of Elections doesn’t approve an electronic voting machine and voters have to take a number 2 pencil to the polls to color in a bubble, those ballots filled out by hand are still going to be counted by a machine.

The state Board of Elections has to make the decision on approving new voting machines because no county can use a voting machine not approved by the state board.  However, the 2019 elections in Guilford County will be held on the same touchscreen voting machines that have been used for years.

But the 2020 election where early voting starts in mid-February for the March primary is supposed to be on the new as yet unapproved voting machines.  Unless another extension is granted then between whenever the state Board of Elections approves new voting machines and February, Guilford, Alamance,  Mecklenburg and a bunch of other counties will have to purchase new voting machines that create paper ballots, train the staff how they work, train the poll workers on the entirely new process and hold as many training sessions as possible for the public.

It could all work, but there are a lot of things that could go wrong with such a short timeline.

A simple amendment to the statute that would allow a paper record of the vote, instead of requiring a paper ballot would make the whole process a lot more reasonable.