The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners held a special session May 23 to consider buying new voting machines. Trena Parker, director of the Board of Elections, led off the meeting with a brief explanation of why new machines are needed. A new state law requires that all voting systems produce a paper record of every ballot cast, which the county’s current machines can’t provide.
Then BOE Secretary Lucy Smith took the lectern. “The paper-ballot vote during the recent [primary] election went well. … But the board is concerned that the accuracy might have been lower,” said Smith. “The board is continuing to recommend DREs [direct-recording electronic machines, or touch screens],” noted Smith, adding, “They are more expensive up front but are cheaper in the long run.”
Although the DREs would cost $2 million more than optical-scan machines (which use paper ballots), the board maintains that over 10 years, it would cost more than that to buy paper and operate the optical-scan machines. The cost comparison includes the interest on money borrowed to buy the DREs as well as projected population growth in the county, said Smith.
Chairman Nathan Ramsey asked Parker to comment on how easy to use the two systems are.
“I certainly can’t make a blanket statement about what the voters want,” she said. “We’ve heard from a sizable group of voters who prefer optical scan, [and] many of our workers are concerned about the optical-scan machines. But either system represents a change. … The optical scan is more labor-intensive for the workers.”
Vice Chairman Bill Stanley and Commissioner David Young plied Parker with specific questions about the operation of the two systems, and Commissioner David Gantt, participating via phone from a transportation meeting in Tennessee, asked, “What are other North Carolina counties doing?”
Parker replied, “Twenty-seven are using DREs, and 75 [are using] optical scan.”
Ramsey then opened a 15-minute public hearing on the issue, during which a series of speakers argued against DREs.
“Touch screens were banned in the state of New Mexico last month,” said Black Mountain resident Bette Bates. “California residents are suing the state for purchase of touch screens, which are insecure. In Pennsylvania, they’ve found serious security flaws. … Almost every day, there are new reports from across the country revealing problems with electronic voting. … The optical-scan system provides voters with a touchable and verifiable paper ballot.”
Harry Moroni of Fairview said he completely agreed with Bates. He also questioned Parker’s math, noting that there are only 100 counties in the state. He then asked: “Have you commissioners looked at the operating manual for these machines? I think the county commissioners need to take a long, hard look at this and read the operating manual and learn about reliability.”
Black Mountain resident Robert Tynes said: “As a taxpayer, I’m very concerned about a $2 million difference in these machines. If three-fourths of the counties are going with the optical scan, I think we should do the same.” He added: “The question is, how vulnerable is the machine and the process to hacking? There have been a lot of stories about the vulnerability of touch-screen systems.”
Jupiter resident Don Yelton, a candidate for clerk of Superior Court, concurred with the arguments about cost and voter confidence. And throwing down the gauntlet, he said: “I have this question for the Board of Elections and the Board of Commissioners: If there is not something crooked going on, then why do you object to having a paper ballot?”
Democratic precinct chairmen Tip Kilby and Doug Gibson, who serve on a party committee that’s been studying voting machines over the past year, both argued strenuously against the use of DREs, again stressing cost and reliability. They also said that it’s much easier to do a recount with an optical-scan system.
Following the hearing, Commissioner Carol Peterson, Stanley, Young and Gantt all said they support using optical-scan machines. But under state law, commissioners are permitted only to vote for or against BOE recommendations, so Young made a motion to reject the DRE proposal, which Peterson and Stanley simultaneously seconded.
Ramsey, however, voiced support for DREs, adding, “I think all of the commissioners would agree that either system is a colossal waste of money.” He said the county’s Sequoia voting machines have worked well, and he questioned the General Assembly’s decision to ban systems that don’t produce a paper trail.
The commissioners then voted along party lines, 4-1, to reject DREs. Ramsey, the lone Republican, concluded, “We would request that the BOE go back to the drawing board.”