Like a lot of political junkies, I switched on the news last Monday night to watch the Iowa caucus returns. It was 10:00 PM (Eastern Time) by the time I had tucked the kids in and done some housework. Given the convoluted way Democrats in Iowa conducted their caucuses, I was not surprised that no returns had come in yet. However, by the time bourgeois propriety dictated that I go to bed, it was clear that something had gone wrong.
At the center of the problem was an app that Democratic Party officials selected to report results from the precinct caucuses to party headquarters (caucuses are run by parties, not state and county election agencies). While details are still sketchy, it appears that the problem was a combination of a coding error in the app, insufficient vetting of the system by party officials, and poor training of caucus precinct leaders.
While reliance on technology does not guarantee disaster (Iowa Democrats used an app in the 2016 caucuses with no apparent ill effect), the danger of such reliance has long been known to those who study elections:
“Experts have been unanimous in warning of the dangers of Internet and mobile apps in voting,” said Matt Blaze, a professor of computer science and law at Georgetown University and a leading voting security expert. “While the risks and threats in a caucus are somewhat different from those in a general election, what happened in Iowa is a perfect example of why this technology is so perilous.
However, we know that the final count in the Democratic caucuses will be accurate despite the technological breakdown. That is because the party implemented a new rule requiring that individual votes be recorded on cards. Those cards created a paper trail that will make sure that votes are eventually accurately counted.
North Carolina’s own election technology problem
The problem in Iowa highlight the dangers of over-reliance on electronic systems, such as the touchscreen systems used in about a fifth of North Carolina counties. We know that such electronic voting systems have had a number of failures in North Carolina, ranging from lost votes to votes for the wrong candidates. The General Assembly recognized the problem with those systems and passed a law in 2015 requiring counties to use systems that produce paper ballots.
However, the General Assembly did not require that those ballots be hand-marked. Instead, counties may use systems that create paper ballots in which the official vote is recorded in a bar code that voters cannot read and which makes auditing election results more difficult.
The State Board of Elections could have solved the problem by only approving systems that use hand-marked paper ballots since counties can only use systems that the state board has approved. However, the state board has failed North Carolina voters again and again by approving barcode systems. They even voted to approve an undertested system when voting machine manufacturer ES&S told them that not enough of the vetted and approved machines would be ready in time for the 2020 elections.
The final line of defense is at the county level, where voting systems are purchased by boards of elections with money appropriated by county commissions. Guilford County made the switch to hand-marked paper ballots last fall. While it is too late to implement hand-marked paper ballots for the March 3 primary, we can have them in every North Carolina county in time for the general election in November.
If you live in a county that still does not use hand-marked paper ballots (the orange counties, except Guildford, in the chart above), contact your county elections board members and ask why not.