Lawmakers may tackle lost votes
N.C. legislative panel proposes requiring paper ballot
STAFF AND WIRE REPORTS
RALEIGH – A legislative panel and Rep. Jean Preston want to avoid a repeat of 4,438 votes lost due to a programming error in a Carteret County voting machine.
A divided legislative panel agreed Wednesday that every vote cast in North Carolina should generate a paper ballot starting next year.
And Rep. Preston, R-Carteret, and Rep. Verla Insko, D-Orange, have filed a bill authorizing the State Board of Elections to allow voters to revote if their ballots are lost.
In filing the measure, Rep. Preston said she was responding to constituents.
“The most important thing was to respond to what our folks in Carteret County were saying and all over the state that it made so much sense to allow identified voters to vote again,” said Rep. Preston.
The lost votes in Carteret during early voting led to legal challenges in a close race for state agriculture commissioners as well as appointment of a special legislative committee that looked into voting equipment used in the state.
It also led to frustration and disappointment on the part of voters who felt they were disenfranchised.
“We’re trying to restore the voters’ confidence,” Rep. Preston said about the actions of the legislative panel and her bill. “That’s my primary mission this session. If we do nothing else, we must restore that confidence.”
A larger bill is expected to be introduced Monday, and Rep. Preston said she would spend the weekend carefully reviewing its provisions. She wants to ensure any measure she backs has input from her constituents, and doesn’t create any unfunded mandates, which could occur if legislators called for an immediate swap of machines but provided no local funding.
After the Nov. 2 election, legal challenges and multiple attempts to resolve the agricultural commission dispute by the State Board of Elections and the courts continued until last week when incumbent Britt Cobb, a Democrat, conceded to Republican Steve Troxler, who was certified last Friday as the new commissioner.
Mr. Troxler defeated Mr. Cobb by 2,287 votes, which was a margin less than the lost votes in Carteret County.
Mr. Troxler wanted Carteret County voters whose ballots didn’t count to recast their ballots, a method Mr. Troxler’s attorney said was within the power of the State Board of Elections. But while two Republicans on the state board wanted that route, the three Democrats wouldn’t agree to that plan.
In yet another controversy, the lost votes could extend the still-unresolved election for superintendent of public instruction.
Rep. Preston’s cosponsored bill would authorize boards of elections to allow voters whose votes were lost to recast their ballots during a two-week period after the election, a recommendation of the Joint Select Committee on Electronic Voting Systems.
It gives authority for the recasting of ballots “where a known group of voters cast votes that were lost beyond retrieval.” The recasted votes would be added to the Election Day returns and won’t be considered a new election.
Meanwhile, 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 may 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.”
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.
Mr. 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 kinds 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 a 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 Mr. 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,” Mr. 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, Mr. 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.
Meanwhile, Senate Democrats say a 2003 law was clear that out-of-precinct provisional ballots should be counted, and they plan to push a bill through quickly to repeat that point.
Sen. Dan Clodfelter, irritated by a state Supreme Court ruling last week that threw out at least 11,000 of these ballots, said his measure could apply to the yet-unresolved race for superintendent of public instruction.
The bill is designed to “essentially say ‘we meant what we said the first time two years ago’ and that is out-of-precinct voting is recognized under North Carolina law and those votes do count,” Sen. Clodfelter, D-Mecklenburg, said Wednesday.
The measure is the latest volley by Democrats legislators in the wake of last Friday’s court ruling. On Tuesday, they filed a bill laying out the procedures Democrat superintendent candidate June Atkinson could use if she wanted the Legislature to decide a winner in her race.
Democrats have majorities in both the House and Senate.
The justices agreed without dissent that the State Board of Elections improperly carried out the law by allowing registered voters to count ballots cast outside of their home precincts on Election Day. The lawsuit was a victory for Republican superintendent candidate Bill Fletcher, who trails Atkinson by 8,535 voters.
Mr. Fletcher said he’s not sure if eliminating the votes will help him catch up with Atkinson. A Wake County judge must now rule in light of the opinion, which also could affect a few unresolved local races.
Sen. Clodfelter said it’s clear that the legislative intent of the 2003 bill was to allow these voters’ ballots to count.
Senate Majority Leader Tony Rand, D-Cumberland, also criticized the ruling for eliminating the votes of thousands of people who were otherwise properly registered to vote.
“People should have their vote counted. We worked very hard to get them to participate,” Sen. Rand said. “To have their votes disqualified appears to me to be really a travesty of democracy.”
Justice George Wainwright, writing for the court last week, said it was “unfortunate that the statutorily unauthorized actions” of the state elections board would harm voters.
But “to permit unlawful votes to be counted along with lawful ballots in contested elections effectively ‘disenfranchises’ those voters who cast legal ballots,” he wrote.
All five justices who participated in the opinion were elected as Republicans or endorsed by the GOP. Sen. Rand said late last week the ruling at the very least left the appearance that it was politically motivated.
Republicans interviewed said they would oppose to any change in the provisional ballot law that could alter the superintendent's race.
“If what they want to do is to change the law for an election that has already occurred ... that strikes me as akin to ex post facto law,” said Senate Minority Leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham.