Monday, November 29, 2004

North Carolina: Voting-machine woes in Carteret have officials looking for answers

The Winston-Salem Journal

Voting-machine woes in Carteret have officials looking for answers
Legislative panel to consider remedies, maybe a new election
Tuesday, November 23, 2004


The Carteret County voting failure has brought a lot of hand wringing to elections officials and "I-told-you-sos" from activists who sounded the alarm about electronic balloting months ago.

A touch-screen voting network there failed to record more than 4,400 votes cast before Election Day because its data storage was full - the result of outdated software and poor communication between the California company that made the machine and county officials.

Election workers said they didn't see warning lights as the voting tabulator continued to "record" ballots that were never counted.

"I can't believe that anyone would design a machine so badly that votes could be lost this way," said David Dill, a computer-science professor at Stanford University and the founder of the watchdog group Verified Voting.

Combine that with publicized counting mistakes and misplaced ballots in several counties and it's little wonder that a new statewide election might be the solution to resolve one or two close Council of State races.

As a special legislative committee is hastily assembled to look at potential solutions, the members will have to ask whether the problem should require drastic changes to state election law, more fine-tuning to reduce human errors or just more money.

"There has always been problems because no system is perfect," said Sen. Austin Allran, R-Catawba, a co-chairman of the special legislative panel. "If you had a (paper) ballot box, you could have counting problems or intentional fraud.

"What we have now with electronic voting machines is a new set of problems, and problems that we don't understand and don't have a handle on."

No one involved in the Carteret mess is trying to belittle the lost votes. Legislators and election officials say that disenfranchising voters reduces citizen confidence that all legitimate ballots are being counted.

But Gary Bartlett, the executive director of the State Board of Elections, said that Nov. 2 was the smoothest election in recent memory for Election Day problems.

"Now, the Carteret issue and other reporting issues, it suddenly gives us a black eye," Bartlett said. "It's hard for people to look past what occurred, but it was a darn good election."

Deputy director Johnnie McLean said that some of the mistakes discovered after Election Day, such as 120 lost ballots in Cleveland County and miscounts in Mecklenburg County, could be attributed to overworked election officials. The Nov. 2 election was the third statewide race since July 20.

The problems highlight that the legislature has failed to make enough investment in reducing the chance for such trouble, a former state senator says.

"The problems this year weren't more acute in North Carolina this time; there's not a greater degree of human error," said Wib Gulley of Durham, who in 2001 shepherded the first overhaul of the state's election laws in more than 30 years through the General Assembly.

"But I think it's a pretty rickety structure we've got in place to handle elections in the 21st century," he said.

Although most of the counties use either more modern optical scan or electronic voting, Bartlett said that the fleet of more than 7,000 voting machines in 100 counties is aging and difficult to adequately maintain.

The federal government is providing $50 million to help update equipment, with the rest of the $80 million price tag to come from state or local governments. Some purchases have been delayed while the state waits for a U.S. election commission to set out minimum equipment standards.

Critics of the electronic voting used in Carteret and elsewhere argue that touch-screen machines should also create a paper record for every ballot that is filled out. That way, they say, voters can have more assurance that their ballot is counted and can be examined later to help resolve election disputes.

"The solutions are there, but we need to turn the eyes of the election officials" toward them, said committee member Warren Murphy of Common Cause North Carolina.

Carteret was the location of the largest in a rash of recent problems with touch-screen machines.

Wake and Jackson counties reported problems similar to Carteret in 2002. There, touch-screen machines failed to shut down when their data banks were full. About 300 early voters were affected.

Guilford County also couldn't properly record 36 votes in 2000, but all but four managed to cast another ballot, said George Gilbert, the county elections director.

Gilbert told the panel that installing paper receipts for these machines would cost $3.4 million in his county alone. He also said that a hand recount of those receipts also would be more expensive and time consuming.

Gulley said that legislators should act, whether it means requiring electronic equipment with paper voting receipts or more training for its workers to reduce preventable errors.