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Elections Board Chastises Voting Equipment Vendor

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina’s election supervisors chastised the nation’s largest voting machine manufacturer on Friday for late software and supply changes involving the planned rollout in coming weeks of voting systems that were recently approved for use in 2020 elections.

Still, majorities on the State Board of Elections accepted vote the software alterations and equipment tweaks by the manufacturer, Election Systems & Software.

In August, the board certified some of the company’s touch-screen ballot-marking devices and tally machines so they could be sold to counties beginning with next year’s elections. The voting systems digitize a person’s choices onto a ballot with both bar code data and by names. The ballot’s bar code is then read by the company’s counting machines.

The certification came as the company’s touchscreen-only equipment — used for years by about one-third of state’s voting population of nearly 7 million in about 20 counties — could no longer be used starting this month. 

Less than three weeks after the August vote, Omaha, Nebraska-based ES&S formally asked board staff to approve what it considered minor software and equipment upgrades without the previous extensive review process. 

Then approval of changes became urgent when the company told the board’s top attorney last month it didn’t have enough equipment using the currently certified system in inventory to distribute machines to all the counties that are contracting with them for the March primary. 

An ES&S spokeswoman said there are no operational differences with the version already certified in North Carolina and the proposed version, which is already used in 11 other states and has been scrutinized by outside experts. And board staff told the five-member board on Friday the system changes had been tested in a mock election and didn’t warrant further delay. 

Critics of the ballot-marking machines said the alterations are significant and further proof the machines can’t be trusted for accuracy. They say only ballots marked by a voter’s hand should be permitted.

“The system “introduces a new voting device and several new operational features making it ineligible to bypass a certification evaluation according to North Carolina’s testing and certification requirements,” Susan Greenhalgh with the National Election Defense Coalition wrote in a letter sent to board members before Friday’s meeting requesting a decision delay.

Both Democratic and Republican board members criticized ES&S. They said the state and counties needing to make purchases were being put over a barrel ahead of the March 3 primary. Early in-person voting begins in mid-February. 

Concerns over the use of touch-screen machines have intensified since hackers tried to access U.S. election systems in 2016. A study released last year by the combined National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine urged that elections use human-readable paper ballots that people can inspect and recount.

“I’m disappointed in ES&S. In their zeal to sell their product, they put us in a very difficult position. They have not been forthright and candid with us, and that needs to change,” Board Chairman Damon Circosta, a Democrat who joined with the two Republican members to approve mostly software changes 3-2. Other alterations were approved 4-1. 

Circosta also said some election equipment critics used this “as an opportunity to push their particular voting system and cast dispersions on others.”

Republican board member Ken Raymond said ES&S “should be concerned about how they’re viewed and perceived by the people of North Carolina and they should be concerned about the confidence of this board.”

ES&S spokeswoman Katina Granger didn’t “directly address these critiques in a news release: “ES&S looks forward to serving the voters of North Carolina with secure, accurate elections equipment.” 

Most of the state population that votes in person fills out paper ballots by hand that get counted by scanners. They can continue to use those optical scan systems, also produced by ES&S, in 2020.

Stella Anderson, a Democratic board member, voted against approving the upgrades and said the 20 counties — the largest being Mecklenburg, located in and around Charlotte — could simply use optical scan machines for now.

“Our back is not up against the wall, and we need to stop letting a vendor put us in a situation where we circumvent normal processes in the certification of voting systems,” Anderson said.

The board already certified equipment made by Clear Ballot of Boston and Hart InterCivic of Austin, Texas.

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