Thursday, July 18, 2024

Despite ‘disappointment’ in manufacturer, NC election board skips certification to approve new voting systems

New Hanover County is suggesting the purchase of new voting equipment in order to keep up with state voting laws (Port City Daily/Courtesy ES&S)
New Hanover County is suggesting the purchase of new voting equipment in order to keep up with state voting laws, but the process has not been without issues. (Port City Daily/Courtesy ES&S)

WILMINGTON — The state’s election board has resolved the potential for a major shortage of voting machines — including around $1 million worth that New Hanover County plans to order. The move was not without controversy, as some state officials said the manufacturer held back information about the shortage to force the state’s hand in approving a new model.

On Friday afternoon, the North Carolina Board of Elections (NCSBE) voted 3-2 to approve the use of a newer model voting system manufactured by Elections Systems and Software (ES&S) without putting it through a state certification process.

Board Chair Damon Circosta cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of the approval, but expressed disappointment in ES&S behavior.

“I’m disappointed. I’m disappointed with ES&S, who in their zeal to sell their product lacked candor and were not forthcoming with this agency,” Circosta said.

Circosta ultimately cast the vote in favor of fast-tracking ES&S’s new system, saying “my disappointment does not dissuade me from my obligation to North Carolina voters” and noting that the system itself was in line with the board’s commitment to providing election security and transparency, despite its manufacturer’s actions.

A sudden shortage

The issue stems from a 2018 North Carolina law (SL 2018-13) that decertified direct record electronic (DRE) voting systems because they did not create a physical record that could be checked in the event of election challenges, evidence of hacking, or other irregularities. New Hanover County’s Board of Elections has over 100 DRE units.

As reported in the Carolina Public Press, in November ES&S, one of the major voting machine manufactures, told the state board it has only a sixth of the total number of machines needed to fill orders (including to New Hanover County). The system, known as ‘ExpressVote,’ was one of two choices considered by New Hanover County.

ES&S did have more than enough of a newer model in stock — but that model had not been certified by the state. Moreover, the in-depth testing process to certify a voting machine would not be completed before the March 2020 primary and might still be incomplete for the general election — leaving many counties including New Hanover with serious voting issues.

Simple solution or ‘bait-n-switch’?

Lobbyists for ES&S suggested a solution: use administrative authority to bypass the certification process and approve the newer model machines since they claimed the latest updates were minimal.

NCSBE Secretary and Member Stella Anderson expressed concern that both ES&S and NCSBE staff had intentionally downplayed the difference between the old and new models, and that ES&S had held back information about the shortage in order to leverage the time crunch between November and the March primary to force the state’s hand, according to Carolina Public Press.

According to New Hanover County Board of Elections Director Rae Hunter Havens, the BOE is still recommending ES&S to the county commissioners, who will vote to approve $1 million to replace machines countywide on Monday, December 16. Hunter Havens said that while the BOE was obviously concerned about a potential shortage, the decision about whether the machines were acceptable was up to the state.

“The decision is basically about whether the newer model machines were significantly different enough from the previous models as to affect their operation. The question is, did these new models have minor upgrades or something that needed to be put through a new certification process,” Hunter Havens said.

Disappointment, obligation

On Friday afternoon, the state board held a teleconference to discuss the issue, and approved the modifications without requiring a new certification process (you can find an audio recording of the meeting here).

Anderson voted against the approval, along with Boardmember Jeff Carmon III, and expressed her frustration that ES&S had not faced any repercussions for its behavior.

“By falling in line with [ES&S’s] desire for quick and easy approval of [the newer model] we’ve just demonstrated and kind of lent credence to that they get to behave and communicate with the state board however they see fit and in their best interests, and that’s exactly what they’ve done,” Anderson said.

Chairman Circosta echoed this frustration but pointed to the considerable challenges faced by the board in the coming months as the state, and nation, gears up for a major election. The board’s obligation, he said, was to make sure all North Carolina voters had access to the best possible equipment.

In a release from NCSBE, spokesperson Patrick Gannon noted that the newer model systems are approved both by the federal government and are used in other states.

According to Gannon, this latest version “is approved for use in Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska, Tennessee, Texas, Wisconsin and West Virginia. No state has ever denied certification of this system. Different versions of the ExpressVote are certified in additional states.”

The approval of the ES&S ExpressVote systems is on the consent agenda for Monday’s New Hanover County Board of Commissioners meeting. Hunter Havens said she did not expect there to be much discussion of the issue, but that she would be present if commissioners had any questions.

You can read the complete release from the NCSBE below:


State Board Approves Modifications to Voting System

Raleigh, N.C. – The State Board of Elections on Friday approved modifications to a certified election system for use in North Carolina that improve the security and functionality of the system.

Election Systems & Software (ES&S) asked the State Board to approve an updated model of its voting system – known as the ExpressVote – after the Board approved an earlier version in August. A majority of the State Board agreed with agency staff that the changes incorporated in the newer model were not significant enough to require the full certification process.

Elections officials in about 20 N.C. counties want to use the ExpressVote as accessible devices for voters with disabilities, for early voting or for all voters. The system is federally certified and used in many other U.S. states.

“Upgrades to voting systems are routine in the elections process,” said State Board Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell. “The changes to the ES&S system make it more user-friendly and more secure.”

Updates in the EVS 5.2.4.0 model certified Friday include:

  • Moving an internal component to improve the manufacturing process
  • Addressing end-of-life components, such as updating the touch screen
  • Adding a cover that will protect USB drives used with the system
  • Adding an external area that will improve adhesion of security seals
  • Increasing the length of the cord for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) voting device to make it easier to use
  • Increasing the character limit for candidate names to 255 characters
  • Updating the anti-virus software to improve security

State Board Chairman Damon Circosta also urged agency staff to modify the state’s certification program to address issues identified as the Board considered the certifications of three vendors’ systems this year. Three systems approved in August were the first that went through the voting systems certification process adopted in 2017.

The Board also limited the length of maintenance contracts between election systems vendors and county boards of elections to one year.

Voters using the ExpressVote system make their selections on a touch-screen machine. After all selections are made, the system prints a paper record of the voter’s choices for verification before the voter inserts the paper into a tabulating device. The approved modification does not include the ability to tabulate votes on the ExpressVote machine.

The ExpressVote model certified in North Carolina – EVS 5.2.4.0 – also is certified by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission after testing by a certified laboratory. State Board staff recently conducted a mock election with the system.

EVS 5.2.4.0 also is approved for use in Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska, Tennessee, Texas, Wisconsin and West Virginia. No state has ever denied certification of this system. Different versions of the ExpressVote are certified in additional states.

In August, the State Board certified three new voting systems:

Clear Ballot: ClearVote 1.4

Elections Systems & Software (ES&S): EVS 5.2.2.0

Hart InterCivic: Verity Voting 2.2

Clear Ballot has also requested an administrative approval of an upgrade to its system. The State Board is expected to consider that request at a meeting on December 20.

“The modifications we approved today are perfectly in line with our obligation to the voters of North Carolina – to ensure they have the best possible voting equipment for all voters,” said Board Chairman Damon Circosta.

Full audio of the meeting is available here.


Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at ben@localvoicemedia.com, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001

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