BRUNSWICK COUNTY — Despite reservations, Brunswick County has joined four counties in North Carolina that will act as guinea pigs this election season, testing new voting equipment using an out-of-state vendor. These four counties will be locked into purchasing the equipment even if they aren’t satisfied with the machines’ pilot performance in November.
The new equipment will only be tested in one Oak Island precinct this municipal election; all other precincts will use the county’s existing equipment until its impending decertification.
Related: With 73 officials elected last municipal cycle, it’s always a crowded field in Brunswick County
On Sept. 20, Brunswick County’s Board of Elections recommended purchasing recently-certified equipment from Hart, a vendor that electronically tabulates hand-marked paper ballots. The Board of Election’s recommendation was split — approved 3-2, the recommendation fell along party lines, with Republican board members dissenting.
Monday, the county’s Board of Commissioners (who are all Republican) approved purchasing the new voting system 3-2 for $526,799. All Commissioners shared concerns about the decision (with the exception of Randy Thompson, who did not weigh in strongly on the issue either way). Commissioners Marty Cooke and Pat Sykes voted against the purchase, voicing objections to the dilemma the county finds itself in.
Decertified in December
How did we get here? To start, Brunswick County’s existing voting equipment will become decertified by statute Dec. 1.
The county is one of 22 in the state that uses direct record electronic (DRE) equipment. This equipment does not produce paper ballots. Nationwide, intelligence leaders have raised concerns that electronic voting systems lacking paper voting records could become vulnerable to cyberattacks.
DRE equipment was first scheduled for decertification by January 2018 through a 2013 state law; a 2015 state law extended the deadline to Sept. 2019; a May 2018 state law again extended the deadline to its current date, Dec. 1, 2019.
To further complicate the issue, the State Board of Elections didn’t certify new equipment options until Aug. 23 (newer, modern equipment up for consideration had been pending certification since 2014). All the while, county leaders and lawmakers have attempted to call attention to the predicament the timing places the county in.
Before Aug. 23, Brunswick County had no ability to purchase (or even publicly test) alternative voting system options (because options weren’t certified), leaving the county with its existing equipment, ES&S’s iVotronic DRE system. ES&S’s new voting equipment, one of three certified by the State Board of Elections in August, prints paper ballots after electronic voting choices are made via touchscreen. Decisions are then recorded on paper as a barcode.
The Hart Verity Voting 2.2 voting tabulators (which the county reluctantly purchased Monday) electronically count hand-marked paper ballots. Politically, there’s a concern about scanning hand-marked paper ballots (Hart) versus using ballot-marking devices (ES&S). Economically, Hart’s system is cheaper, but the vendor does not have a bond in place necessary to provide recently-purchased equipment, nor does it maintain physical office space in North Carolina.
The Hart system
Brunswick County joins Union, Caswell, and Chatham Counties which all have signed on to try Hart’s equipment.
“I just don’t understand this,” Commissioner Cooke said at Monday’s board meeting. “I mean, what — what is, what is it Brunswick County knows that the rest of the state of North Carolina doesn’t?”
Cooke was uncomfortable with the Texas-based company’s lack of guaranteed financing, office space, and experience in North Carolina.
“I’m dealing with somebody who has four — four in the entire state of North Carolina. Four. All the rest of them, all the rest of them, are ES&S. And I’m sitting here and saying what’s wrong with this picture?” Cooke said, referring to the state’s 22 counties with soon-to-be decertified systems.
Brunswick County Board of Elections Director, Sara Knotts, told the Board of Commissioners Hart previously maintained in-state office space. “When the State Board of Elections kept delaying, [Hart] finally gave up that rental space because there was no reason to pay the rent on it,” Knotts said. “But I really think they are prepared to set up shop. They’re ready. I’m confident in that. I wouldn’t have recommended this to my board if I didn’t think they would be ready to jump in and take care of us.”
Knotts said she didn’t find anything wrong with ES&S’ new system, but added her staff is partial to the Hart system. When the Board of Elections approved Hart Sept. 20, board member and former chief judge Rebecca Willis shared a preference for Hart equipment. She shared concerns that if the county uses ballot-marking devices, lawsuits or legislation changes could render the equipment obsolete.
‘We have to do what we’re being told to do’
Monday, Commissioner Sykes said she worried Hart’s system could slow things down at the polls and cause issues, particularly with the fall 2020 general election. “I was not impressed with how they did the presentation — I was really hesitant,” Sykes said of Hart’s Board of Elections presentation. “If these machines become a problem and we’ve already purchased them, how, I mean, we’re stuck with them,” she said.
If lines grow at the polls, Knotts said a hand-marked paper ballot system could be more readily deployed versus ballot-marking devices in a high-stress scenario.
County Chairman Frank Williams acknowledged he may be wrong, but shared his hesitation with reverting back to a hand-marked paper ballot system. “I personally have a major concern with going back to paper ballots,” Williams said Monday. “I mean, that’s what I’m having a hard time processing. To me, going back to paper ballots seems like taking a step backward.”
Commissioner Mike Forte said he saw the vendors’ presentations and that he would have preferred ES&S. Still, he reckoned with the Commissioners’ inability to choose a vendor. (Later, county attorney Bob Shaver added that, by state statute, Commissioners may only approve or deny the Board of Elections’ recommendation. “You can’t just choose the other one,” Shaver said. “You have to approve the one that has been recommended to you.”).
“My responsibility in this is to pay for it,” Forte said to Knotts. “And your responsibility is to determine what machine you want to use.”
Knotts shared her staff would love to test more than one vendor’s equipment, but legal counsel at the State Board of Elections informed her the county may only test one. And equipment must be pilot tested in one precinct prior to full deployment, which will be necessary come the spring 2020 primary. Four pending bills — including Senate Bill 683, House Bill 851, House Bill 502, and House Bill 19 — could all provide some relief to the process by delaying DRE’s decertification.
“None of that is moving,” Knotts said of the pending legislation. “It has been sitting in committees.”
Cooke, grappling with the timing, was not comfortable with the board’s option (or lack thereof). “Look, we’re almost being given no options whatsoever. We can only approve, we cannot send it back, we don’t have enough time. I mean, it’s like, OK, you can buy all the gas you want to anywhere you want to but there’s only one gas station in this municipality so buy whatever gas you want but only from that gas station. But you don’t have to, so you can sit on the side of the road,” Cooke said.
Clarifying he wasn’t speaking directly to Knotts, Cook concluded: “We are being put on a hook here to approve what y’all have brought forward to us with literally no options. Because the truth is, if we don’t like these and they don’t work, what are we going to do?”
Knotts said the Board of Elections shares the same concerns as Commissioners. “We are looking at it strictly from an election administration perspective. I certainly respect where you’re coming from because we have the same concerns. We just didn’t let those weigh as high on the list as the system itself,” she said.
Before the vote, Commissioner Sykes said she wants the public to know the board’s hands were tied.
“I just was concerned,” Sykes said. “I want the public to know we were concerned and that we don’t have an option. We have to do what we’re being told to do and we don’t agree with it.”
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