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Electronic voting committee investigates weaknesses in system, proposes remedies

Opinion    Charlotte Observer    26 March 2005

From Sens. Austin Allran, R-Catawba; Ellie Kinnaird, D-Orange, and Rep. Verla Insko, D-Orange, co-chairs of the Joint Select Committee on Electronic Voting:

In last year's election, several North Carolina counties experienced failures in their voting systems.

In Carteret County an electronic voting machine stopped tabulating ballots and lost 4,300 votes.

In several Gaston County precincts the number of recorded votes on the electronic voting machines did not match the number of voters.

In Onslow County a software error changed the order of finish in the race for county commissioner.

In Cleveland County precinct workers left 120 uncounted provisional ballots behind at the Cleveland County fire station.

In Guilford County the tabulation computers threw some votes away.

Soon after the election, voters began raising questions about the reliability of our voting process the most basic of our democratic institutions. Most of the concerns dealt with the "direct record electronic" machines (DREs) those electronic voting machines that have no paper record. The problem cited most often was the machine failure in Carteret County that held up a statewide race for three months. This time it was the commissioner of agriculture race, but it could just as easily have been the presidential race.

To investigate the weaknesses in the system and to strengthen voter confidence in the election process, the General Assembly appointed a Joint Select Committee on Electronic Voting. It included legislators, state and local election officials, computer experts, security experts and representatives of interested organizations.

The committee heard testimony on election law, the election process, computer technology and computer security, as well as from concerned citizens. Members witnessed demonstrations of what could go wrong with existing machines and viewed machines in use around the state and new machines available from vendors. The committee learned, among other things, that no perfect voting system exists. Every system has weakness, and the main weakness is susceptibility to human error.

The committee made several recommendations. One of the most popular with citizens around the state was to require that every voting machine create a paper record that can be recounted by hand in case of machine failure or a discrepancy in vote count. A paper record would also be available for any challenge that a candidate might mount.

The commission produced five bills, all of which have been introduced in the General Assembly. The major bill (SB 223/HB 238) calls for the centralization of more decisions and oversight at the state level. It authorizes the State Board of Elections to certify up to three or four vendors of optical scan and DRE machines for use throughout the state and requires the State Board of Elections to train Election Day poll workers and hire technology experts to provide assistance on Election Day.

The bill requires a paper record on all systems, with federal money from the Help America Vote Act paying for paper-record upgrades to existing DRE machines. The bill also requires the software source code to be held safely in an escrow vault so no tampering can take place, and calls for audits before and after voting takes place and random sampling to measure accuracy. To assure that there are no unfunded mandates to local governments, no changes that would take place under the bill will be charged to local governments.

A second bill (SB 224/HB 158) deals with lost votes, such as occurred in Carteret County. It would authorize the State Board of Elections to establish a process to allow those known voters whose votes weren't counted to vote again.

To address the problem of finding enough qualified workers to staff the polls on Election Day, the third bill (SB 227) would allow government employees to work at the polls without taking a vacation day, just as they can now for jury duty.

A fourth bill (SB 226/HB 128) would allow the county board of elections to count absentee ballots earlier

The commission worked hard to address problems identified in last year's election. If passed, the legislation will increase voter confidence in the election process.

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