Election officials from across Western North Carolina gathered in Haywood County to be the first to witness public demonstrations of new state-certified voting systems.
Depending on which county you live in, changes could be coming to the way you cast your vote next year.
“The equipment that we've used for 15 years, it's reached the end of its useful life,” said Robbie Inman, Haywood County’s Board of Elections director. Haywood is one of few counties that doesn’t use paper ballots, but come 2020, all counties will.
In fact, current North Carolina voting systems are set for decertification on December 1 of this year, and the state board of elections has certified voting systems from three vendors. But before counties actually make any changes, members of their elections board must by statute witness a demonstration of those systems. Five demonstration sessions were scheduled across the state this month, with the session in Haywood being the first.
“We definitely want to assure voters that their systems are secure,” said Karen Brinson Bell, executive director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections. “I think the most important thing for voter confidence is to have moments like this, where they're able to see demonstrations of the voting equipment.”
The Haywood demonstration drew elections board members from as far as Polk County, and included representatives from Buncombe, Madison, and a number of counties further west. The gathered saw what were essentially sales pitches from three companies hoping to do business with North Carolina counties –HartIntercivic, Clear Ballot and Election Systems and Software.
But ES&S almost wasn’t invited to the party – according to Carolina Public Press, security advocates raised concerns over the bar codes ES&S uses to tabulate votes. An August 23 vote by the State Board of Elections cast aside a motion that would have implemented stricter certification requirements that would have essentially excluded ES&S. Still, the Omaha-based company has become a familiar name in the industry over its 40-year history, and has sold plenty of the new machines as well, according to Will Wesley, director of business development.
“The whole state of North Carolina currently the old legacy equipment they have is from ES&S, so 100 percent of the state is using our equipment,” Wesley said. “Now you're going through a new sales cycle where everyone's got to choose and that's what this is about today. The three vendors that are here are actually going to show their equipment to the counties and then the counties can make a decision what they want to do going forward.”
Wesley thinks his company is still well-positioned to retain its dominance in the North Carolina market, but Clear Ballot, by contrast, is the newest of the three companies to go through certification.
“We're built from the ground up since 2009, which a lot of the other systems are built off legacy platforms, so they've been around for a long time, and they've kind of struggled with the technology that they're anchored to,” says Bill Murphy, director of sales for the Boston-based company. “We don't have that burden, which is nice.”
Founded in 2009 as an audit company, Clear Ballot has been in the voting system business since 2014 and currently serves about 20 percent of Florida and 70 percent of Washington state and Oregon. The third company, Austin-based Hart InterCivic, appears to mingle the best of both ES&S and Clear Ballot.
“We have a mix of our legacy system that's been in place since the early 2000s, and our new system, which was first federally certified in 2015,” said Sean Phillips, a sales consultant with Hart InterCivic. “We are a pure paper based system. We provide a ballot that is equal for all voters, whether they vote on an accessible device or by hand marking the ballot.”
Elections board members were reluctant to go on the record with their impressions of the three systems, but questions and conversations overheard at the demonstration largely centered around bar codes.
“It has been posited that if the human readable thing that is on the piece of paper isn't what drives the tabulation and it's in a barcode, it could be changed,” Phillips said. “We just want to fight the perception of that by sidestepping it completely and providing a paper-based system that the human readable portion of that ballot is what drives the tabulation.”
Haywood’s elections board members, like those in other counties, will now weigh their options and make some sort of recommendation to commissioners, who’ll be on the hook for the final call, and for the funding.