11/23/2004

NBC 17 - Politics - Panel To Decide On Possible Election Law Changes

RALEIGH, N.C. -- 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failed to record more than 4,400 votes cast before Election Day because its data storage was full -- the result of outdated software and poor communication between the California company that made the machine and county officials.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 Stanford University computer science professor and 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's always been problems because no system is perfect,'' said Sen. Austin Allran, R-Catawba, a co-chairman of the upcoming 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. Lawmakers and election officials say disenfranchising voters reduces citizen confidence that all legitimate ballots are being counted.

But State Board of Elections executive director Gary Bartlett said Nov. 2 was the smoothest elections 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 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 added.

Although most of the counties use either more modern optical scan or electronic voting, Bartlett said 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 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 Warren Murphy with Common Cause North Carolina, another committee member.

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 when 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, county elections director George Gilbert said.

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

As for the Carteret case, election procedures already in place make it easier to track down displaced voters because they voted early.

"One machine in one small county had a problem,'' said Marshall Hurley, a Greensboro election law attorney representing Steve Troxler, the Republican candidate for agriculture commissioner. "That is unfortunate, but we know the group of voters involved and the problem is susceptible of a solution.''

Gulley, the former state senator, said lawmakers should act, whether it means requiring electronic equipment with paper voting receipts or more training for its workers to reduce preventable errors.

In either case, the Legislature will need to spend money, but it's going to be a lot less painful than the financial and psychological impact of a new election on voters, he said.

"If we have to spend $3 million to do a new election, could have we spent the money instead to put the right machines and training in place so that we wouldn't have to do it?'' he asked.

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