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Board of Elections dismisses security concerns; votes to allow barcode ballots

The North Carolina Board of Elections voted Friday to allow counties to use voting systems that utilize barcode technology, despite voters not being able to verify their votes. The meeting was “standing room only” and crowded with voters who asked the board to return to the use of paper ballots for more secure elections. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

The North Carolina Board of Elections went against the request of thousands of voters Friday and voted 3-2 to certify a barcode elections system that many observers and advocates believe is susceptible to hacking.

Chairman Damon Circosta, a Democrat recently appointed by Gov. Roy Cooper, was the tiebreaker, voting with Republicans to give counties the option to use barcode technology on ballots despite concerns expressed by numerous voters in a “standing room only” crowd who disagreed. (Disclosure: Circosta is the Executive Director of the A.J. Fletcher Foundation, a funder of NC Policy Watch.)

He said after the meeting that he fundamentally disagreed with the concerns expressed about the barcode voting system and pointed out that it still produces a paper ballot that allows individuals to see who they voted for.

“I have confidence and security in a paper ballot and the three vendors we approved today,” he said. “Not making any modifications was the way to go.”

Voting system certification has been delayed multiple times now for various reasons, but the latest was to consider making modifications to the process.

Board Secretary Stella Anderson proposed adopting criteria that would require voting systems in North Carolina to produce human-readable markings. The voter would have to be able to identify his or her intent as evidence by the mark on the ballot.

“Citizen confidence in our elections cannot be put in doubt,” she said. “Voters are looking to us to make the right call.”

Public commenters overwhelmingly opposed

Jessica Marsden, an attorney with the nonpartisan group Protect Democracy, spoke Friday to the North Carolina Board of Elections to urge members to reject any voting systems that used barcode technology. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

Before voting on that Anderson’s motion, the board heard public comment from more than 20 North Carolinians. All but one urged them to reject the barcode system – and the one person who advocated for it works for the company that sells the system, Election Systems and Software (ES&S).

“In the past five years, it’s produced nothing but successful elections,” said Willie Wesley.

The other 20-plus voters who spoke expressed fear about how vulnerable the barcode systems would be to hacking without voter knowledge. They called for accountability and said the barcode systems don’t allow for an accurate post-election auditing process.

Thousands of voters also wrote to the State Board encouraging them to certify only those systems that produce hand-marked paper ballots.

“We believe that to truly restore trust in the process and repair the broken system that hand-marked ballots will restore that trust,” said the Rev. Dr. T. Anthony Spearman, President of the North Carolina NAACP [3].

He told the State Board that voters needed transparent, trackable and publicly verifiable ballots.

Marian Lewin, Vice President of the League of Women Voters of North Carolina [4], agreed that voters were ready for change.

“Confidence in our government has declined and many citizens have lost faith, and don’t even bother to vote,” she said. “Democracy can only work if citizens participate in and trust the results of their elections, public officials, and all levels of government.”

The Rev. Anthony T. Spearman told the State Board of Elections on Friday that to restore the voter’s trust in elections, they needed to certify hand-marked paper ballot voting systems. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

She added that throughout the state, public verification of election results has become an essential part of the democratic process.

“Many races are decided along very narrow majorities, and recounts have become commonplace,” she said. “Election results are scrutinized for weeks and even months after the polls close. It is essential that our voting systems can withstand that scrutiny.”

Other voters cited news articles about people who created fake barcodes in a shoplifting scheme and about an 11-year-old who hacked the Florida voting system in 10 minutes. They talked about their comfort level with another ballot marking system called Automark and about the superiority of hand-marked paper ballots.

“Barcodes are not the most secure, reliable source,” said Andrew Spatz, a Durham County voter.

During the discussion of the motion, Anderson held up two ballots – both paper ballots, but one that contained human-readable markings and another that contained a barcode.

“These are absolutely distinguishable from one another,” she said, noting that in a county where disabled individuals use the ballot with human-readable markings, their votes could possibly be identified. “They should be indistinguishable.”

Ken Raymond, a Republican member on the State Board, cited two resolutions from Dare and Transylvania counties urging them not to adopt the more stringent modifications. They said it could cost more money.

He also said that voters concerns about the barcodes were “inconsistent at best” because they most likely didn’t have security issues while shopping at a local grocery store or the mall.

The room audibly scoffed at his conclusion and Anderson quipped back.

“Casting our vote is the most sacred thing we do,” she said. “I don’t think in any voter’s mind they would equate it anywhere near shopping in the local grocery store.”

“I’ve got security; they need options”

Before calling the vote, Circosta told the crowd he would be voting against the proposed modification but said he didn’t want it to be the last conversation the State Board would have about election security.

Anderson proposed a second motion that would allow voters to choose whether they used a paper ballot or a ballot marking device with a barcode on Election Day.

The Republicans and Circosta again voted against it.

Ultimately, the Board approved all three of the vendors selling voting systems, including the ES&S barcode system – though Anderson and Jeff Carmon III voted against that one.

Carmon expressed disappointment in the Board after the voting concluded.

“I sit here thinking about my grandfather and the right to vote – having your vote count and knowing that your vote counted is extremely precious to me,” he said. “I’m not trying to cause any strife but I cannot look at my barcode and know that that barcode represents my vote.”

Circosta said after the meeting that counties have to make sure they have every flexibility they need. If the State Board had adopted the proposed modifications, it would create uncertainty.

“I’ve got security; they [county boards] need options,” he said. “We’re going to give them as many options as we can.”

Counties will ultimately be able to choose and buy whichever certified voting system is right for their voters.

Before purchase or use of their equipment by any county, each vendor must post a $17.01 million bond or letter of credit to cover damages resulting from defects in the voting system, according to a news release from the State Board. Within two business days of certification, vendors must provide the State Board executive director the statewide uniform price for each unit of equipment.

The vendors and county boards of elections must also host demonstrations of the voting equipment and test it in at least one precinct during an election. Dates and locations of regional demonstrations coordinated by the State Board will be announced soon.

The State Board’s consideration of new voting systems was spurred in part by state laws prohibiting the use of touch-screen, direct-record-electronic devices (DREs) that do not produce paper ballots, including iVotronics, beginning December 1, 2019.

About 20 counties currently use those systems and will have to replace them as soon as possible, though the legislature has considered delaying DRE decertification. Circosta said he is 100 percent committed to decertifying those machines, which are especially susceptible to cyber hacking.

Circosta was not overly concerned when asked about the security of the barcode voting systems.

“Every time you introduce technology in any system, you’ve got a technology concern,” he said. “We have to do everything we possibly can to mitigate that, but I don’t believe that we as a state or as a community are going to remove CPUs and microprocessors from our election system. We use them in our poll books, in our tabulators and we use them in our ballot marking devices.”

Protect Democracy [6], one of the organizations that urged the State Board not to approve voting systems that use barcodes, released a statement expressing its disapproval after the meeting.

“The Board of Elections today opened the door to unproven new voting technology that cannot be properly audited,” said Jessica Marsden, counsel at the organization. “Fortunately, today’s decision does not mean that any voter will have to use that system. It’s now up to each North Carolina county to ensure that its voters have access to a secure and reliable voting system based on paper ballots.”

She added that counties should make those decisions on behalf of its voters, not on behalf of any vendor, including ES&S. The organization, she said, has filed a public records request to track the actions of ES&S in North Carolina.