A state-imposed deadline for ordering new voting machines was the most pressing business at the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners’ first meeting of 2006. The General Assembly has given counties until Jan. 20 to choose new machines from a list of approved models, to ensure that the equipment is up and running in time for the scheduled May primary elections.
But on Jan. 3, Buncombe County Election Services Director Trena Parker reported that failure to comply with state certification requirements has eliminated all but one manufacturer from consideration. “Election Systems & Software remains the final survivor. We have a choice of their two products: optical scan or direct record,” she said. The optical-scan machine, which reads paper ballots, costs about half as much as the higher-tech touch-screen model.
Parker, who has repeatedly voiced her preference for direct-record voting machines that display the entire ballot, rather than those requiring scrolling, added, “There is no full-face ballot in sight in North Carolina and no Sequoia-Pacific machine available.” Buncombe County had been using Sequoia voting machines until they were decertified Dec. 1 (along with all other voting machines that don’t meet the standards enacted during last year’s legislative session).
Sequoia decided to opt out of the North Carolina selection process when it determined that it couldn’t deliver a suitable test model to the state by the Dec. 2 deadline.
“It is up to us to hold a public forum, demonstrate the machines, and come up with a decision with the Board of Commissioners by Jan. 20,” noted Parker. “We plan to hold our forum on the 11th. We will continue to work hard and do our homework so that we can make a recommendation to you by the 17th of January [the next scheduled Board of Commissioners meeting].”
Vice-Chairman Bill Stanley asked, “So our machines are obsolete and can’t be used anywhere else in North Carolina?”
Parker affirmed that and restated her preference for the higher-priced touch screens. “I’m convinced that the new direct-record machines will take two for every one we have now. [But] the vendors say to plan on one-third more, and I hope that will be sufficient. As I reported to you last time, there is close to $1 million coming to the county under HAVA [The Help America Vote Act], and $250,000 I requested for improved access, but it isn’t going to be enough.”
Commissioner Carol Peterson asked: “If there was a change in the time frame, would there be any way to retrofit these machines? And can you talk about how well our machines have worked?” Peterson served on the committee that recomended the Sequoia machines nine years ago, before she was elected to the board.
“Sequoia was working on a retrofit, but the time frame was so tight that they weren’t able to get it certified in time,” Parker explained. “The company feels very good that they could have it certified by May — in time to use them for the November elections.”
In 2003, Sequoia announced that it was developing a voter-verifiable printer component for its machines, which it planned to submit for federal certification early in 2004 (see “Rolling the Dice,” May 19, 2004 Xpress). At an estimated cost of $500 per machine, that worked out to about $225,000 for Buncombe County’s more than 400 machines.
But at the Jan. 3 meeting, in response to a query from Chairman Nathan Ramsey, Parker said a retrofit would cost “about $1.25 million.” A new ES&S optical-scan system would cost about $1.5 million, said Parker.
Meanwhile, at the Oct. 26 Board of Commissioners meeting, Parker said the county’s machines were due for replacement soon anyway. Asked how that would mesh with the idea of retrofitting the machines by adding printers, Parker told Xpress: “What I said was that I believed that our Sequoia machines would last us at least 10 more years, but that it was time to look at growth and assess our preparedness for the future. Even without the paper audit trail legislation, we were going to have to add a handicapped-accessible machine in each precinct per HAVA legislation.”
In other words, if the county retrofits its existing machines for $1.25 million, it will still have to buy 75 additional machines to comply with federal law.
County Manager Wanda Greene commented: “The law is good, but the time frame is just unworkable. It’s way too tight. I have a letter for the commissioners to sign requesting our delegation to seek more time.” Such a move would require Gov. Mike Easley to call a special session of the General Assembly before Jan. 20.
Commissioner David Young concurred, saying, “I would propose that we sign the letter and do everything in our power to get more time.”
The commissioners voted 4-0 (David Gantt was absent) to sign the letter to the legislators and asked Greene to send a copy to Easley.
A rosy report
Ray Denny, the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce’s vice president of economic development, delivered an upbeat report on the state of the local economy and the efforts of the Chamber’s Economic Development Department to attract new businesses to the county. Recent figures, he noted, show Asheville having the second-lowest unemployment rate in the state, behind Raleigh, and some experts believe “the steep decline in manufacturing jobs may be over.”
“In 2005 we worked with 25 businesses on relocations and expansions. Seventeen are businesses that may relocate here, and eight are existing enterprises. We believe the shift away from manufacturing jobs will continue but not as rapidly as in the past.” Citing numerous industries in which growth is predicted to be good, Denny added: “It is our belief that, given real-estate availability, Buncombe County will continue to gain jobs. We are cautiously optimistic that 2006 will be another year of growth for Buncombe County.”
After that, Executive Director Kelly Miller of the Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau offered an even more upbeat report on tourism. “We had a stellar year in 2005; it was the best year in the last 20. Whereas occupancy rates usually hover around 50 percent, we are now running over 60 percent and up to 65. Average room rates are up to $75.”
Miller said his organization is working on a new slogan for the city, “Asheville — any way you like it,” which is slated to be rolled out soon.
Hearings and appointments
The board unanimously approved a resolution announcing Jan. 17 public hearings concerning several proposed bond issues totaling more than $53 million, principally for school projects. Additional information is available at the office of the clerk to the board (205 College St. in downtown Asheville) and on the county Web site.
The commissioners also made the following appointments:Veronica Sotolongo, Brian Sawyer, Kieran Roe, Lindsay Benedict and James Sean MacWilliam (Land Conservation Board); Dr. Michael Sowa (Board of Health); Joel Bender (Adult Care Home Community Advisory Committee); David Gantt (Pack Square Conservancy); Susan Matthews (Environmental Advisory Board); Sharon Lewis, Rachelle Sorenson and Rodney Lytle (Asheville-Buncombe Community Relations Council); and Tom Cathey (Asheville Planning and Zoning Commission).