Marking the ballot

They’ve been tested in a real election at Oak Island and extensively in-house, so Brunswick County’s new voting machines are ready to go in the 2020 primaries, officials report.

The Hart InterCivic Verity is one of three new systems with paper-based ballots approved by state officials for use in North Carolina. One vendor, Clear Ballot, was approved but later announced it wouldn’t pursue sales in North Carolina.

Elections officials recently showed off the machines during a demonstration attended by about 40 people, including several poll workers.

Board of Elections Director Sara Knotts said she was confident the system would perform well, with one-stop absentee voting starting Thursday, February 13, at the board office and four satellite locations.

During a test in the municipal elections, workers hand-counted ballots in a couple of races to compare performance. The machine missed a handful of votes but in every case, the voter had failed to properly mark his or her choice. Instead of darkening the entire box, some voters had drawn an “X” or a check mark on their choice. That can pass by the tabulator machine unnoticed.

“We’re really going to stress marking the ballot correctly,” Knotts said, and that completely darkening the rectangle next to the candidate’s name “is crucial.”

The machines do not connect to the Internet, although they do have memory cards and a slot for a backup card. The county bought 45 tabulators, one for each of the 25 precincts and the rest to serve as backups.

If a polling place gets unusually busy, workers could add a second tabulator. Knotts said she did not expect the new system to take longer than the old touch-screen machines.

As in the past, a team of workers equipped with printers and machines will drive around the county all day, checking on precincts and troubleshooting.

Organizationally, the main difference for poll workers will be the addition of a ballot coordinator at each precinct, Knotts said. This person will control the distribution of ballots and audit their numbers.

There are as many as 130 different ballot styles depending on where a voter lives and party affiliation, if any. Early voting stations will use on-demand printers to avoid waste, Knotts said.

On election day, precincts will have pre-printed ballots, since there aren’t more than five possible styles per precinct, she said.

The total cost for the machines and voting booths was about $531,700. Knotts said the county was prepared to spend considerably more. “We’ve been talking about this a long time,” she added.

Union, Chatham and Caswell counties also purchased the Hart InterCivic system, and Onslow County is testing it in the primary.

Knotts said the biggest challenge going to paper-based ballots was the relatively short time frame. Immediately after testing the machines in November, the board had to move quickly to buy a complete set then transition to use in the primaries.

But Knotts said she was confident the system would perform well.

“I’ve got a really good team,” she said. “And they all jumped in.”