Election officials not worried about touch screen voting machines

Reports of problems with machines in Cumberland, Guilford and Wilson counties don't show anything out of the ordinary, state election officials say.

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Election 1
Mark Binker
RALEIGH, N.C. — A handful of voters throughout the state have reported problems making a choice on touch-screen voting machines used in roughly a quarter of North Carolina counties.
Newspapers in both Cumberland and Guilford counties have reported on voter complaints. Callers to WRAL-TV have also asked about problems their friends encountered when voting early. 

"We don't even question the voter as to whether it's true or not," said Terri Robertson, director of the Cumberland County Board of Elections. She said her staffers are instructed to shut down any voting machine that a voter is having problems with and service it. Voters, meanwhile, are directed to another machine, she said.

Robertson said that it's important for voters to review their ballots before submitting them, something the machine asks them to do. If they don't see their choice for a particular office, they should either make changes themselves or ask for help.

George Gilbert, the elections director in Guilford County, said he's only had a handful of complaints out of more than 70,000 voters who have cast ballots so far.  

"In 95 percent of cases, people that I've talked to in the last three days understand. Some of them, you cannot satisfy," Gilbert said.

Those unsatisfied voters may be driving a meme that has prompted "hate calls" to the state Board of Elections. 

"Every machine comes with their pluses and their shortcomings," Gary Bartlett, director of the state board of elections. 

In Wake County, for example, people vote on paper ballots. Sometimes, those ballots aren't market correctly and the machines that count them won't understand underlines or scratch-outs. 

In the case of touch-screen machines, Bartlett said, a small number of machines can develop a problem where the piece a voter touches is not in sync with the rest of the machine. In most cases, the problem is fixed when local election officials recalibrate the machines. 

"Our instructions to the local boards is that each machine be calibrated daily," he said.

Still, Gilbert and Robertson said, there is occasionally a machine that acts up during the day.

The problems with voting machines have become fodder for talk radio hosts and the like, who have questioned whether there might not be some organized effort to tilt the election one way or the other. Elections officials say the problems they're encountering tend to be random, with no clear pattern one way or the other. 

"It's something disconcerting to the voter," said Pamela Smith, president of the California-based Verified Voting Foundation.

Smith said North Carolina got good marks for having proper plans to handle problems, and she said the procedures that elections officials are following sound correct.

For voters, she offered several bits of advice.

"Most important, if the machine doesn't seem to be working, don't hit that cast ballot button," she said. Call an election worker and ask to vote on a machine that does work.

Also, she said, voters should check the paper record that North Carolina voting machines produce as they make their selections. That record, she said, will be important if there is any sort of problem or recount. 

Smith said all voting machines have their quirks. This problem, she said, is not uncommon with the equipment from ES&S. Similar problems, she said, have been reported in prior elections in West Virginia.

More than 1 million people have cast in-person early votes across the state, and another 111,000 more have returned ballots by mail.

Bartlett said he was more concerned about the possible impact of Hurricane Sandy on coastal voting centers than he was any widespread problems with voting machines.