North Carolina has been moving away from touchscreen voting machines due to several problems threatening ballot integrity. Despite that, one county is threatening to start using them.

The Move Away from Touchscreens

As seen on page 52 of the John Locke Foundation’s review of the 2020 election, North Carolina has an unhappy history with touchscreen voting systems:

In 2002, two Election Systems & Software’s (ES&S) iVotronic system
touchscreen voting machines lost 436 early voting ballots during the general election due to a software glitch. Election officials contacted those voters to redo their ballots on election day. In 2004, a UniLect touchscreen voting system irretrievably lost 4,530 ballots in Craven County. That same year, 800 to 900 constituents were not allowed to vote in a school board race when the touchscreen voting system failed to load those particular ballots. In 2018, voters in Guilford County reported that the touchscreen voting machines changed their votes, a problem the county elections director attributed to the age of the devices, which were purchased in 2006.

In response to those problems, the North Carolina General Assembly mandated that all voting systems produce paper ballots. To comply with that mandate, the counties that continued to use touchscreens switched to a ballot marking device (BMD) manufactured by Elections Systems & Software (ES&S).

The Problems with Ballot Marking Devices

However, BMDs also have their problems (page 53)

First, the constituent’s official tabulated votes are not the choices printed on the ballot. Instead, the official vote is embedded in the ballot’s QR code. A human being cannot read that code, so voters cannot review their official votes.

Second, voters are unlikely to notice errors made by BMDs. A University of Michigan study found that “voters missed over 93% of errors on printed ballots that they filled out using BMDs.” Even when voters complain about BMDs altering their choices, election officials have no way to tell if the BMD malfunctioned, if it was hacked, or if it was human error.

There is another problem with BDMs:

[U]sing a barcode ballot system makes it harder to audit election results — an essential election security feature for confirming the outcomes of the election.

If there is a problem with the BMD’s software, intentional or not, and it isn’t detected, state and local election officials won’t know if there is a problem with the election outcome. This differs from paper ballot systems, in which voters mark paper ballots that are subsequently tabulated by scanning devices and the paper ballots themselves serve as a mechanism to ensure the outcome is correct, even if the voting system software has undetected issues.

Because of those problems, county elections boards moved away from touchscreen (BMD) systems, with the number of counties using them dropping from 22 in 2018 to 11 in 2020.

Ballot marking device (left) and tabulator used in the June 2020 11th Congressional District second primary. Jackson County, North Carolina

A New Threat Emerges in Buncombe County

Now, Buncombe County is threatening to switch to a BMD for early voting:

Buncombe County Election Services is mulling a decision that could change and potentially streamline early voting: new digital machines with touch-screen technology, a first for Buncombe.

In a roughly two-hour presentation Jan. 17, Elections Services Director Corinne Duncan pitched the idea of spending $604,225 for 140 new DS200 ExpressVote-brand voting machines, produced by Elections Systems & Software.

In addition to the problems with BMDs note above, North Carolina State Board of Elections member Stella Anderson has pointed out that ES&S provided the state board “inaccurate and misleading information” during the process of certifying their BMD voting system:

We must seriously examine the information ES&S has provided for our initial certification and their subsequent request for consideration of the modified system. If we do so, we can conclude nothing less than submission of inaccurate and misleading information at multiple points in the process…

Finally, we should also acknowledge that ES&S failed to accurately disclose, as required, the location of manufacturing for both the ExpressVote and DS200 units at the time of their initial submission of documents in 2017 (as part of Corporate Information, Certification Program Section, Item 7). ES&S’ initial statement on the location of manufacturing facilities indicated Pivot International as their contract manufacturer located in Kansas. Only after we learned (in October [2019]) that these units are actually manufactured in the Philippines did they submit a corrected disclosure statement. This corrected disclosure statement was only transmitted to Executive Director Brinson Bell on November 11, 2019.

Taking all of this into consideration, there is a clear pattern of actions on the part of ES&S that represent a fundamental lack of candor in the certification process.

Considering the problems with ballot marking devices and ES&S’ conduct during the certification process, the Buncombe County Board of Elections would be doing a disservice to the county’s voters if it switched to the company’s ExpressVote BMD system.