State voting reforms delayed

By: - June 27, 2005 4:50 am

Wilmington StarNews Onlline
Will fail-safe machines be ready for this year’s election cycle?

By Gary D. Robertson
Associated Press


RALEIGH – North Carolina heads into another election cycle this week without a final plan to cut the chances of another electronic voting miscue of the sort in Carteret County that drew national attention last year.

The error became the focus of voting reform advocates nationwide last November when touch-screen machines failed to record more than 4,400 ballots. The votes were lost.

"North Carolina is like our poster child," said David Dill, a Stanford University computer science professor and founder of the watchdog group Verified Voting.

After this and other counting errors, a state legislative commission recommended improvements to the General Assembly in February including equipment upgrades, more training and a paper receipt of every vote cast.

Lawmakers in Raleigh have yet to approve the changes, and if the legislature approves a plan before adjourning for the summer, the chances are slim that upgraded equipment could be in place for this fall’s municipal elections.

The candidate filing period statewide begins Friday. Most of the reforms would be ready for the 2006 elections.

The monthslong wait prompted voters whose ballots were lost in Carteret County to rally over the weekend to remind legislators to push forward.

"We know we can’t depend on electronics. We know that we need a paper trail," said Dave Taylor of Beaufort, whose ballot was lost. With the bill still pending, the identical UniLect Corp. machines that lost votes last year will be used this year in Carteret. "I’ll walk a paper vote all the way to Raleigh before voting on one of those UniLect machines."

Last November’s blunder was caused when a machine technician failed to change a computer setting. It threw the close agriculture commissioner’s race into confusion. A new statewide election was avoided when Britt Cobb conceded.

The legislative panel recommended that only three kinds of voting systems be allowed in North Carolina: paper ballots counted by hand, optical scan machines and electronic or touch-screen machines.

The panel also said the electronic machines should generate paper receipts of each vote cast. Voters also could confirm the machines recorded their correct choices.

"We do need some kind of paper backup for the simple reason that we don’t want in this state to happen again what happened in Carteret County in the last election," said Sen. Austin Allran, R-Catawba, one of the commission co-chairs.

The bill proposing changes has been moving slowly through the General Assembly in part because no one knows for sure how much the machine upgrades and other items will cost.

The federal Election Assistance Commission still hasn’t detailed all the standards that voting machines nationwide will have to meet in as few as six months. And the technology to create the paper trail for electronic machines required in the North Carolina bill is emerging but is not widely used.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Chris Fitzsimon

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina. [email protected] 919-861-2066