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N.C. legislative panel proposes requiring paper ballot

Associated Press Writer   09 February 2005

A divided legislative panel agreed Wednesday that every vote cast in North Carolina should generate a paper ballot starting next year, an attempt to avoid a repeat of 4,438 votes lost due to machine error in Carteret County last fall.

A committee of lawmakers, computer experts and election officials recommended requiring that all voting machines generate paper backups. They also want to restrict what kinds of voting machines counties my use.

The proposals would have to be approved by the full General Assembly to become law.

"Politically, I think I will always support a paper ballot," said state Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, D-Orange, a co-chairwoman of the committee. "Right now, I'm hearing that voters don't have confidence in the system."

Legislative leaders formed the Joint Select Committee on Electronic Voting Systems in December after a touch-screen machine in Carteret County failed to store more than 4,400 ballots cast during early voting.

The lost votes delayed resolution of the state agriculture commissioner's race by more than three months and could extend the still-unresolved election for superintendent of public instruction.

The panel rejected an amendment by committee member Roger Knight that would have allowed voting machines to use non-paper technologies - such as audio playbacks of a voter's choice or a photographic image of an electronic ballot - as backups.

Knight said his amendment, which was defeated 6-5, would avoid "closing the door on technology."

But members who voted against the amendment said the technology is still not practical and that the public wants paper ballots to ensure correct vote totals in elections.

Carteret's "direct record electronic" machine was not equipped with a printer that generated a read-out of the voter's ballot. Those paper records could have been used to tally lost votes after the machine failed to store the early votes.

The committee also recommended Wednesday that the State Board of Elections limit the types of voting machines county election boards may purchase.

All of the state's 100 counties either count paper ballots by hand or use one of four different kind of machines. Under the committee's recommendation, only three types of voting would be allowed starting next January: optical scan; electronic; or paper. Punch-card and lever machines would be eliminated. The bill would provide grants to help counties make the upgrades, but the committee didn't specify how much this would cost.

State election officials previously have said it would cost $30 million in state or local funds to upgrade machines. But it could cost more if electronic machines have to be retrofitted to generate paper ballots.

The panel also recommends allowing state officials to inspect the computer code of electronic machines for potential pitfalls. Elections board members have complained vendors won't let election reform activists inspect code, citing its proprietary nature.

The recommended legislation also would require election officials to hand-count a sample of precincts statewide to ensure that electronic counting is accurate. Hand-to-eye recounts also would be required in secondary recounts of close races.

Durham County elections director Michael Ashe, who cast the lone vote against the final proposal, questioned the accuracy and expense of hand counts.

"It's a slow and inaccurate process," said Ashe, who believes the problems highlighted by the Carteret County mistake have been overblown. He said 3.5 million votes were cast accurately during the Nov. 2 election.

"I don't think the system's broke," Ashe said.

The committee heard from many outside experts over the past two months, with many different recommendations about which voting systems allow the smallest room for error.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Ted Selker said Wednesday that paper receipts generated from electronic machines also had pitfalls. When used in Nevada last year, Selker said about one out of every 20 machines experienced a jammed printer.

Many panelists agreed what happened in Carteret has made voters wonder whether their votes count, and that a paper ballot was the best way to go for now.

"The voters are looking to be able to trust the system," said Warren Murphy with Common Cause North Carolina. "If they're not going to have a paper backup, then Carteret County is going to happen again and again."

The committee already has made other recommendations, including allowing "known voters" whose ballots were lost - like those in Carteret County - to recast their ballots in a two-week period after Election Day.

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