By Jim Buchanan
Local election officials are awaiting the outcome of state board of elections actions this week to see if they’ll be able to move forward on voting machines for upcoming elections.
On Monday the State Board of Elections, in a split but bipartisan vote, edged toward a new requirement for voting machines that produce hand-marked ballots. The move came largely in response to public concerns over potential election hacking.
Jackson County’s 120 touch-screen machines initially faced extinction in 2013, when the N.C. General Assembly passed an edict requiring counties to upgrade to equipment that produce a paper ballot.
Jackson and the dozens of other counties affected faced a Jan. 1, 2018, deadline for the upgrade. The legislature later extended that deadline to Dec. 1, 2019. The switch would cost between $750,000 and $1 million here. Local governments are responsible for funding election costs, including staff salaries and voting equipment, in addition to machines. In 2006, the federal Help America Vote Act helped Jackson County pay for voting equipment. For current changes there is no federal or state money to help offset the cost.
Under state law, small test runs in elections are required before new machines can be fully deployed. Municipal elections on Nov. 5 could be the test here.
In Raleigh Monday, state board member Stella Anderson, a Democrat, made the motion to change the voting machine requirements. Another Democrat, Jeff Carmon III, seconded the motion, which passed 3-2, with Republican member David Black joining the majority. Board Chair Robert Cordle, a Democrat, and Republican Key Raymond voted against the measure, citing the tight deadlines facing counties.
On Tuesday, the board indicated it might certify new voting machine suppliers in spite of Monday’s vote. It announced a meeting for today (Thursday) that would not only consider certifying new systems, but could rescind the certification requirement changes put on the table Monday.
The situation was further roiled when Cordle submitted his resignation Tuesday night following backlash from his recitation of a dirty joke before a training session of hundreds of election officials. Gov. Roy Cooper will appoint a new chair; that person will be the board’s fourth chair in eight months.
Kirk Stephens, chair of the Jackson County Board of Elections, said the local board is prepared to respond to whatever comes out of Raleigh.
“The county commission and elections board have been preparing for this for several years, and we’re ready,” regardless of what new wrinkles arise, including using the current machines.
“As of right now the machines we have are certified and new machines are not. There’s a slim chance (of using the old machines) but that’s not my preference,” Stephens said.
“I do think there’s a chance deadlines for larger counties that are really in a crunch could be extended,’’ Stephens said. “Counties like Guilford and Mecklenburg are facing big expenditures, something along the lines of $8 million and $16 million.”
Three vendors are competing for certification to sell machines to county boards.