As part of my observation of the June 23 11th Congressional District Republican second primary, I observed how voting using touchscreen systems was conducted.
Jackson County, in western North Carolina, is one of just seven counties in the state that use touchscreen voting as their standard voting method on election day, according to the NC State Board of Elections. So I went to Jackson County on June 23 as part of my wider observation of how precinct officials conduct voting during the coronavirus pandemic.
All counties that use touchscreen voting systems for standard voting in North Carolina use the ES&S Voting System 188.8.131.52 (Express Vote). Express Vote is a ballot marking device (BMD). BDMs print out votes on a receipt-style ballot that is then fed into a scanner like hand-marked paper ballots are. That is a large improvement over touchscreen-only systems, which have irretrievably lost or flipped votes in several North Carolina elections. However, BMDs still have several problems that make them less reliable than hand-marked paper ballots.
Despite those concerns, things generally went smoothly. Jackson County officials gave each voter a single-use ballpoint pen with a stylus to vote with. This eliminated voter contact with the touchscreen, mooting the central argument of an NAACP lawsuit that claimed that touchscreens were unsafe to vote with during the coronavirus pandemic.
So things went relatively well at the two polling places I observed that used BDMs.
Well, there was one incident.
While I was observing at the Canada and River precincts polling place in Tuckasegee, there was a paper jam in one of the ballot scanners. Precinct officials had to open up the scanner (which contained voted ballots) in order to clear the jam. The whole incident only took a couple of minutes and there was no sign of any shenanigans by precinct officials.
The paper used for BDM ballots is thinner than the cardstock used for hand-marked paper ballots, making it easier for voters to accidentally fold or roll a corner of the ballot, increasing the likelihood of a paper jam. Problems with BMD paper jams were reported in recent elections in Pennsylvania and South Carolina.
While a paper jam in a ballot scanner is barely an inconvenience during a low-turnout election like the June 23 second primary, similar jams during the November general elections are a recipe for long lines and chaos.
While it is probably too late to make changes in voting systems for this year’s elections, all North Carolina counties should switch to hand-marked paper ballots as soon as possible.