NC Capitol

NC Capitol

NC elections board stymied after chairman's resignation

Posted August 1, 2019 12:38 p.m. EDT
Updated August 1, 2019 5:26 p.m. EDT

— The State Board of Elections met Thursday to discuss approving new voting machines, but a partisan deadlock created by Chairman Robert Cordle's resignation caused the board to adjourn without taking any action.

Cordle stepped down Tuesday evening amid criticism for a joke he told at an annual conference for election workers in Cary on Monday. Some attendees found the joke crude or inappropriate, and he issued an apology as he resigned.

Hours before his resignation, the elections board agreed to hold another vote on certifying new voting machines for counties to use. About a third of North Carolina's voters live in counties that use touchscreen machines, which lawmakers want phased out by the end of the year so that a paper trail exists for each vote.

The board met Sunday and Monday to review the systems from three vendors, including one that records votes by way of a barcode. The board voted 3-2 Monday to move toward changing certification requirements for voting machines and require hand-marked ballots, effectively preventing the barcode voting system from being sold in North Carolina.

That decision was to be finalized later this month.

But board member David Black, who had voted with the majority, said he didn't understand the vote and wanted to change his position. That made it likely the board would reverse itself until Cordle, a Democrat who had voted against the change, resigned and left the board with a 2-2 split – Democrats favoring hand-marked ballots and Republicans more open to other equipment.

That split was evident Thursday, when Black's motion to rescind Monday's vote failed on a tie vote.

Some election security experts say hackers could easily alter the barcodes on ballots and voters wouldn't be able to tell their votes had been changed, but others say that's unlikely.

Black, a Republican, said the bidding process on the new voting machines has gone on for years, and because the original rules didn't forbid barcodes, it's unfair to the vendors to change the rules at the last minute.

But board member Stella Anderson, a Democrat, said voters should have the most secure systems available.

"We are considering, literally, a change that involves what constitutes a vote and how a vote would be counted," Anderson said. "The voters in those counties will be voting on this equipment for 10, maybe 15, years. We have to get this right."

The board is set to meet again on Aug. 23, by which time a fifth member – and tie-breaking vote – could be in place.

Ford Porter, a spokesman for Gov. Roy Cooper, said the governor is waiting for the North Carolina Democratic Party to submit the names of nominees for the open seat. Once that happens, Porter said, an appointment should follow quickly.

Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, and Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, two legislative leaders on election issues, sent Cooper a letter Wednesday, suggesting he appoint Gerry Cohen, a former long-time staff attorney at the legislature. Cohen said Thursday he was flattered and willing to serve, but that he did not seek out the recommendation.

Cohen, a Democrat who now serves the Wake County Board of Elections, was up for a state board appointment last year, but he did not get the nod. He said he has no indication he would be appointed this time around.

When asked where he would come down on hand-marked ballots, he said he wasn't sure.

"I would need to review the statute and the rules and see a demonstration of it," Cohen said. "Personally, I like the Wake County system (of hand-marked ballots) ... but I wouldn't pre-judge.

"Anyone that assumes that I would vote one way or another doesn't know me," he said.

Lawmakers could again delay the deadline for getting rid of the touchscreen machines if counties don't have enough time to buy, test and train on new machines before next year's elections. Counties can also buy hand-marked ballot systems like Wake County uses, which remain certified.

The trouble with that plan, though, is that counties need ADA-compliant systems for disabled voters who can't mark their own ballots with a pen. Without a new certification vote, or an extension for touchscreens currently in use, the only certified, ADA-compliant system in the state will be the AutoMARK, which board staffers have said is no longer manufactured.