Meck County election officials opt for bar codes over hand-marked paper ballots

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Voting will soon look different in Mecklenburg County.

Due to state law, the current equipment Mecklenburg County uses for elections has to be replaced. The system Mecklenburg County has selected to test comes with some controversy.

Mecklenburg County is testing the Express Vote system offered by Elections Systems and Software. The system produces a paper ballot that shows a voter's selections. But the text on the paper is not what is counted. A bar code at the top of the paper is what is tabulated.

ES&S vice president of sales Mac Beeson said there has never been a case in which the bar code rings up something different from what the text says.

"As long as the county does their pre-election testing and their post-election testing as is mandatory in North Carolina, they can ensure all ballots are counted as anticipated," Beeson said. "We've gone through the most extensive testing process of any vendor here. We are certified in 40 states. We've gone through federal certification in which we have to mark a million ballots, and they have to come out as 100 percent accurate and it always is."

ES&S was one of three companies that made pitches to Mecklenburg County leaders and voters at a public demonstration in September.

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The big difference between ES&S and the other vendors is, unlike the Express Vote system, the other two companies rely on hand-marked paper ballots and don't use bar codes.

"We are happy with hand-marked paper ballots, as well as the ballot marking device. Our system scans both of those," Beeson said when asked why his system is more secure than pen and paper. "We just want everyone to feel comfortable with the ballots marked with the ballot market devices that produce the bar codes."

A spokesperson for the Mecklenburg Board of Elections said voters will have the ability to check the bar codes before they submit their ballots.

"You may verify how it marked your ballot on the same terminal or any terminal in the precinct," said Kristin Mavromatis, spokeswoman with the Mecklenburg Board of Elections. "Once the ballot is as you wish, the voter will place in a tabulator."

Many election integrity activists are not comfortable with bar codes, including Marilyn Marks, with the Coalition for Good Governance. Marks wrote numerous letters to the North Carolina State Board of Elections and the Mecklenburg Board of Elections about her concerns with the system.

"It's been just so frustrating to see the NCSBE, but particularly the Meck BOE, basically say voters be damned, experts be damned, security be damned, taxpayers be damned. You know what we are going to do? What our favorite vendor wants us to do," Marks said. "It is extremely frustrating, and it is really concerning because every single computer scientist who is not working for one of those companies will say, 'I don't want to vote on one of those touchscreens. I want the gold standard.' Don't put a computer between me and my ballot. Once you put a computer between a voter and her ballot, you're asking for trouble."

Despite being certified, Marks believes the system violates state law because unless someone is fluent in bar code, the voter can't truly verify what's chosen matches their intent. She worries that misprogrammed or compromised machines could create issues with ballot verification that pen and paper cannot.

"There's so many ways to fool the system, which is not true for a hand-marked paper ballot," Marks said. "If it is misprogrammed in one machine, it is likely misprogrammed in another."

In September, Mecklenburg County Board of Elections members unanimously voted to test the ES&S equipment.

Some Board of Elections members were concerned about hand-marked paper ballots being too expensive and that determining voter intent on mismarked bubbles can be difficult.

Former state lawmaker and current board of elections member Beverly Earle said going to hand-marked paper would be going backward.

"Most folks don't care. Nobody that I've talked to much cares whether they have a printout to show that I did this I did that. They look at it on the screen," Earle said. "We've moved on. Technology is what it is. Here in Mecklenburg, we've been using touchscreen forever. It seems to not have been a problem. So now to go back to paper ballots, where you have to mark the bubble, fully mark it and then store all that paper. It just seems to me we are going backwards instead of moving forward."

University of South Carolina professor and computer scientist, Duncan Buell, doesn't buy the argument that going to pen-and-paper ballots is backward.

"I have been writing computer programs for more than two-thirds as long as any human beings have been writing computer programs. As a computer scientist, it is the case that sometimes there is just too much technology," Buell said. "We know how to handle paper. If we have hand-marked paper, the only technology we have to trust is the scanner, and that we can calibrate."

Buell said "advanced civilizations" deciding bar-code ballots is a bad idea and the easiest way to ensure voter confidence is to use hand-marked paper ballots.

"Paper is simple," Buell said. "It is hard to get paper wrong."

Mecklenburg County is proceeding with the bar codes.

Voters will first see them in the Good Shepard precinct in Steele Creek.

Mecklenburg BOE director Michael Dickerson said he isn't big on testing things in a live election, but he has too.

"I hate testing anything in a live election but face it, all of these vendors are selling equipment that works," he said.