- Electronic touchscreen voting systems are vulnerable to malfunction and hacking
- North Carolina has had its own problems with touchscreen voting systems, causing thousands of votes to be lost
- After a series of reversals and missteps, the state Board of Elections will soon have the chance to make sure that only hand-marked paper ballots are used in North Carolina
On August 23, the North Carolina State Board of Elections will meet to decide which voting systems counties will be able to use in 2020 and beyond. With the demonstrated security vulnerabilities of electronic voting systems and their history of problems in North Carolina, the board should only approve systems that include hand-marked paper ballots.
Problems with electronic voting systems
There are two voting systems currently used in North Carolina. Most counties use an optical scan system in which voters fill in bubbles next to the names of their preferred candidates on paper ballots. About a quarter of NC counties, including Mecklenburg and Guilford, use the iVotronic touchscreen system, in which voters make their choices on a touchscreen. Those choices are recorded by the system and eventually tabulated.
The iVotronic systems used in North Carolina have a paper backup system, called Real-Time Audit Log (RTAL), that records votes on a roll of what looks like receipt paper. While the RTAL does provide a paper record of votes, it has drawbacks (Verified Voting):
The disadvantage is that in the event the voter makes any changes, all the voter’s previous selections have been retained. In a recount or audit of the paper records, only the last vote recorded for each race should be counted. The inclusion of prior selections can make ballot verification of RTALs challenging for voters, and manual counting of RTALs even more difficult for election officials.
Audits and manual recounts of paper ballots have a 1-2 percent error rate. The difficulty of hand-counting RTALS would likely produce a higher rate of error than a similar hand-count of paper ballots.
More important than these problems are the documented security flaws of electronic voting systems. A study commissioned for the state of Ohio discovered that systems manufactured by Election Systems and Software (ES&S, which makes all the voting systems currently used in North Carolina) “discovered numerous security flaws in the ES&S system” (Department of Computer and Information Science, University of Pennsylvania).
More recently, reports from “voting villages” at the last two DefCon hacking conferences demonstrated how hackers with no prior knowledge of electronic voting systems were able to quickly gain access to them. The relative ease with which individuals have been able to hack voting systems over the course of a weekend is a clear warning of the damage that could be done by groups armed with more time and resources who want to attack our elections.
Problems with electronic voting in North Carolina
North Carolina is sadly familiar with the risks of electronic voting systems. In 2004, the votes of over 4,500 people in Carteret County were irretrievably lost due to a misunderstanding about the amount of data storage available. That same year, a problem of poll worker interaction with the touchscreen system then in use in Buncombe County prevented 500 to 600 voters from being able to vote in their local board of education race. Those were just two of host of voting system problems in North Carolina discovered that year. More recently, voters in Guilford County reported that the touchscreen machines used there flipped their votes in 2018.
Aware of the problems associated with touchscreen voting systems, members of the General Assembly included provisions requiring that the state Board of Elections only certify “systems that produce a paper ballot” in the omnibus voting bill it passed in 2013 (page 35). But implementation of those requirements has been delayed and the NC State Board of Elections was moving to approve voting systems that used paper records of votes (in which the official vote was recorded in a bar code) instead of hand-marked paper ballots.
Then things got interesting.
A joke about the sex lives of cows gives the NC State Board of Elections another chance to get it right
The NC Board of Elections had been set to certify several new voting systems at a meeting on Sunday, July 28. Local boards of elections can only purchase systems that have been certified by the state board. All of the proposed systems either use hand-marked paper ballots or print a paper ballot that can be read by voters. However, for one the proposed systems (from ES&S), the officially tabulated vote is not what the voter reads on the printed ballot, but an accompanying bar code. It is that disconnect that worries activists.
During the public comment period, speaker after speaker rose to advocate for hand-marked paper ballots. Perhaps under public pressure and aware that knowledgeable advocates like former state elections board general council Josh Lawson have spoken in favor of hand-marked paper ballots, the board voted 3-2 to delay certificating new systems until a new meeting three weeks later. That delay gives the board sufficient time to change the rules for certification before a final vote.
However, one of the board members who had voted to delay certification (David Black), reversed himself and asked for a new vote on the delay, which the state board set for Thursday, August 1. The stage once again appeared set for all the proposed voting systems to be certified.
Fortunes changed once again in the wake of a joke involving the sex life of a Welsh cow that elections board chair Bob Cordle told a room full of hundreds of local election board officials from across the state. Cordle, who resigned the next day, had been in favor of certification. His resignation caused the board to split 2-2 at the Thursday meeting, preserving the certification delay and the opportunity for the board to change the certification rules so that only systems with hand-marked paper ballots could be certified.
The next meeting of the Board of Elections will be on August 23. By then Gov. Roy Cooper should have appointed a new fifth member of the board, meaning that he can have a direct impact on whether North Carolina exclusively uses hand-marked paper ballots in 2020. Let’s hope that he makes the right choice.
UPDATE: Damon Circosta, whom Gov Cooper named to replace Cordle on the board was the decisive vote in a 3-2 decision to not require the use of hand-marked paper ballots in NC elections.