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For Guilford voters, it's back to paper ballots

GREENSBORO — Come February, Guilford County voters will be picking their candidates in the primary elections using hand-marked paper ballots rather than computer touchscreens.

The Guilford County Board of Elections opted Tuesday for a new voting system that relies on ballots filled out by pen-wielding voters to replace Guilford’s current system that’s no longer usable after Dec. 1.

The board split 3-2 along party lines in rejecting the ExpressVote system, which uses a touchscreen terminal to record votes but also produces a paper ballot that displays choices in both written text and computer bar code.

Critics of that new touchscreen technology said it was vulnerable to fraud, difficult to audit and did little to resolve the suspicions of voters that their choices might be recorded incorrectly.

“It seems as though the public has lost confidence in bar codes and would prefer hand-marked ballots,” board Chairman Horace “Jim” Kimel said. “From a public perception standpoint, that seems to be a valid request.”

The decision means that county Elections Director Charlie Collicutt and his staff must move quickly to test one of the new machines at a single precinct during the Nov. 5 municipal elections taking place this year in High Point and several other Guilford County communities.

Then they will have to purchase, learn how to use and deploy the new equipment for early voting in the 2020 primaries starting in February. Although the ballots are marked by hand, they are then fed into a computerized tabulator where votes are actually counted.

Tuesday’s vote split along party lines with Democratic board members Kimel, Carolyn Bunker and T. Anthony Spearman prevailing.

Republican board members Kathryn Lindley and Eugene Lester cast the dissenting votes. They asserted that the ExpressVote system was more cost effective and just as verifiable by the individual voter as paper ballots.

Both systems are made by the same vendor, Elections Systems & Software, the county’s current supplier of election equipment.

In other action, the board pleased a group of about 75 students from N.C. A&T who attended the afternoon meeting by approving their campus for an early-voting site during the 2020 primaries.

Students told the board that the lack of a campus voting site suppressed turnout among student and black voters.

In another 3-2 vote along party lines, the board approved a slate of 15 early-voting sites, including new primary-election sites on both the A&T and UNCG campuses.

Lindley said she voted against the plan mainly because of the increased cost of adding that many early-voting sites to the nine Guilford hosted in 2016 — the last presidential election year when about 32,000 residents voted early.

“That means we’re going to spend somewhere in the vicinity of $550,000 for 35,000 voters,” Lindley said.

The board also approved an early-voting schedule for the 2020 primaries spanning more than two weeks, beginning Feb. 12-14 followed by a weekend break and then continuing through Feb. 28.

Primary Election Day is March 3 next year, with the general election set for Nov. 3, 2020.

The need to replace Guilford’s roughly 1,400 current voting machines stems from a change in state law that requires the use of paper ballots voters can inspect for accuracy.

Guilford’s existing voting equipment does not comply with that specification, using instead a touchscreen terminal where voters make their selections and submit them. Under North Carolina law, those machines can no longer be used in just less than two months.

Proponents of hand-marked balloting contended it was the only true way to meet the requirement for a reviewable paper ballot in a way that instilled voter confidence.

Cost estimates had ranged up to $8 million to purchase another touchscreen system that is compliant with the new paper ballot standard.

Collicutt said the cost for the hand-marked system will be less than its touchscreen counterpart, but he did not know by how much.

The hand-marked system costs less initially, but its operating costs are higher per election because officials must print thousands of ballots for each election, Collicutt said.

Tuesday’s board vote actually was not to buy the Elections Systems & Software hand-marked system outright, but to test it in the Nov. 5 municipal elections and to proceed if the equipment performs acceptably.

Collicutt said the law requires that each new system be tested in an election before it is finally approved for local use, and the upcoming municipal contests are all that remain before Guilford’s current equipment must be replaced.

He described Tuesday’s vote as a “defacto final decision” because of that limitation.

“If the test is successful, then the board makes a recommendation to the county commission to enter into a contract with the vendor,” Collicutt said.

'We will stand with you':

GREENSBORO A coalition of faith leaders, resettlement groups and others said at a news conference Tuesday that the city should continue to welcome and support the thousands of refugees who come to this country after being forced to leave their native lands.

The groups spoke out against a recent proposal from the Trump administration that would drastically cut the number of refugees allowed to enter the United States in the upcoming year from 30,000 — already a record low — to 18,000.

The White House also issued an executive order that states and localities must provide written consent before refugees can be resettled.

The president is required to set the cap with input from Congress, which might push back for a higher total.

Still, the move continues the Trump administration’s effort to limit the number of refugees allowed into the U.S. — some in the White House have suggested that no one should be admitted at all — and further diminishes the nation’s resettlement program, which was started in 1980 to give those fleeing war and persecution a new home.

Each year, the administration establishes a cap for how many refugees the country will resettle. Historically, the number of admissions has fluctuated according to world events — such as the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — but they’ve generally been high.

During President Barack Obama’s final year in office, 110,000 refugees were allowed into the country.

However, that number has fallen dramatically during the Trump administration. After taking office in 2017, he set the cap at 50,000. He lowered it to 45,000 in fiscal 2018 and then to 30,000 in fiscal 2019.

Trump officials have suggested that refugees pose a potential security risk. But former intelligence officials and experts studying refugee populations disagree, saying there is no evidence to support that.

On Tuesday at noon, a number of speakers stood on the steps of City Hall and implored state and local leaders to pressure federal officials to reconsider their stance.

“We will not be gatekeepers that will close these gates,” said the Rev. Sekinah Hamlin, who praised refugees for their contributions to Greensboro and pledged community support. “We will stand with you and fight, fight, fight till this ends.”

City Council member Michelle Kennedy said Trump’s executive order is “constitutionally suspect” and “blatantly discriminatory.” She added that Mayor Nancy Vaughan will be traveling to Uganda in December to “try to come to a deeper understanding of the refugee experience.”

One Ugandan refugee addressed the crowd of about 60 on Tuesday.

David Ssesanga said he fled the African country after facing persecution and death threats. He then spent three years in a refugee camp in Kenya before coming to the United States.

He called the proposed reduction “very, very sad,” given what he’s seen of refugees contributing to communities in the United States and of grim circumstances in refugee camps.

“Some of my friends, they have died,” said Ssesanga, who lives in Greensboro and works as an electrical technician. “They are dying like cockroaches. They are dying like people who have got no hope.”

Legislators trying to bring renewed energy to resolve budget stalemate

RALEIGH — North Carolina Republican legislators and Democrats led by Gov. Roy Cooper tried on Tuesday to bring renewed energy toward resolving a summer budget stalemate that’s drifted into fall. But their hoped-for outcomes remain different.

Republican Senate leader Phil Berger of Eden announced his chamber will adjourn for the year by Oct. 31 with or without an enacted budget. He also kept open the idea of passing a spending plan by completing the override of Cooper’s budget bill veto or working out a side deal with Senate Democrats.

“At some point we’ve got to wrap this up,” Berger told reporters after legislators returned to Raleigh after a nearly two-week recess.

Cooper vetoed the GOP’s two-year state budget in late June largely because it lacks Medicaid expansion for hundreds of thousands of low-income adults and what he considers robust pay raises for teachers. Negotiations on a full, compromise budget idled as Democrats remained united to uphold any veto.

But the House Republicans voted three weeks ago to override in an unexpected vote during a floor session sparsely attended by Democrats later accusing Republican colleagues of trickery. That put the issue squarely in the Senate’s hands.

Cooper said earlier Tuesday he was confident that all 21 Senate Democrats would stick with him and support the veto. The shift of one Democratic senator or absence of two from the floor would open the door for Republicans to complete the override. Cooper has said expansion needs to be part of budget talks but rejects Republican accusations that expansion must be approved before he’ll negotiate.

All Republicans “want to do is try to find a way to override this budget whether it’s ... by hook or crook or deception,” Cooper said after the monthly Council of State meeting. “I think people want us to negotiate, and I’m certainly willing to listen to an offer that’s less than what we have proposed. But yet we’ve heard nothing.”

No Senate override vote has been scheduled, and Berger said Senate operating rules requiring 24 hours’ notice will be followed. Berger said some Senate Democrats want to vote for an override but are afraid of “reprisals from the governor.”

Berger said he’d prefer to pass a replacement state budget that’s been agreed to by enough Democrats so there wouldn’t be another veto showdown with Cooper. Any agreement, Berger said, could include a pledge by himself and GOP House Speaker Tim Moore to hold a session early next year to discuss health care issues.

“I hope Senate Democrats realize they can achieve some of their budget priorities while also getting a special session on health care access,” Berger said.

Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue and House Minority Leader Darren Jackson tried on Tuesday to build on momentum for expansion. They led a public meeting in the Legislative Building attended by 30 Democratic legislators, taking testimony on the importance of offering Medicaid coverage through the 2010 federal health care law.

While Berger remains strongly opposed to expansion, Moore allowed a GOP-style Medicaid bill to resurface two weeks ago in committee, where it passed with bipartisan support.

Tuesday’s hearing speakers included local residents whose family members or workers lack affordable insurance, as well as a professor who measured the benefits of expansion to the North Carolina economy and toward decreasing the number of uninsured.

“The results are truly positive,” George Washington University professor Leighton Ku said at the hearing.

Meanwhile, House and Senate Republicans planned this week to continue their recent tactic of passing stand-alone measures containing portions of the vetoed budget that have broad bipartisan support. Cooper said on Tuesday he’s unhappy with the “mini-budget” strategy and would prefer negotiations on the entire budget. Still, he’s signed all but one of those measures.

Moore appeared to telegraph support for Berger’s supplemental budget idea with Democrats to end the impasse. In an emailed statement, Moore pointed out on Tuesday improved revenue projections could help pay for more public education spending. Moore also said capital funding for K-12 schools, universities and community colleges “are of the utmost importance before adjourning for any significant period of time.”

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Days after her 'Bless the Harts' animated comedy debuts, TV writer talks to UNCG students about creating new sitcoms

GREENSBORO — When Emily Spivey offers tips on writing sitcoms, UNCG media studies students listen.

Spivey, who grew up in High Point and graduated from the same program in 1993, created “Bless the Harts,” the new animated comedy that premiered Sunday on the Fox network.

On Tuesday, the Emmy Award-winning television and film writer returned to her alma mater to speak to Frank Donaldson’s sitcom writing class.

She heard 12 students pitch sitcom ideas, then offered compliments and advice.

“Never let anyone tell you that you can’t do it,” Spivey told them. “You can do it.”

Another tip: If you pitch a show to producers, “Write about what you know... It’s always obvious if someone is writing something they don’t fully know about. It’s always going to feel not quite as authentic.”

To write “Bless the Harts,” Spivey drew on her roots in North Carolina. She was born in Statesville and has a home with her husband and son in Jamestown.

The Harts’ fictional hometown is named Greenpoint, a combination of Greensboro and High Point.

On Tuesday, Spivey described to UNCG students her path to “Bless the Harts.”

That included moving to Los Angeles, earning a master’s degree from Loyola Marymount University there and joining The Groundlings, an improvisational and sketch comedy troupe.

Among other shows and the film, “Wine Country,” she wrote comedy for Fox’s “King of the Hill” and “Saturday Night Live,” where she won an Emmy.

“That’s something that I’m nervous about, after graduation, not being able to find work or be successful,” said Madison Setzer of Lenoir, who will graduate in May. “She is living proof that you can do it.”

“Bless the Harts” follows a down-on-their-luck family of three generations of Southern women.

It features the voice of Kristen Wiig as Jenny, single mom to Violet (Jillian Bell). Maya Rudolph voices grandmother Betty. Ike Barinholtz is Wayne, Jenny’s caring boyfriend.

In an interview, Spivey revealed a tidbit about the next episode: Jenny — who works in The Last Supper restaurant — might have to take a night job at a strip club. “But she ends up, well, you’ll see,” Spivey teased.

“I think that you can really feel that it’s the Triad in this particular episode,” she said.

Spivey listened as four teams of students practiced pitching their own sitcom ideas. Students later will choose one for the class to develop.

Isaiah Smith, Adrianna Hyler, Destini Tyson and Jennifer Salazar proposed a show titled “Temporary Housing,” about college students forced to become friends. Three are females, two are males.

“I love how thoughtful you were about each character,” Spivey said.

She suggested it become a mockumentary for Netflix. “I want you guys to be in it,” Spivey said, prompting laughter.

Madison Setzer, Ernest Hansley and Nick Dominguez proposed a show with a working title of “Gone Vegin,’” a play on the phrase “Gone Fishin’” and the word “vegan.”

In their show, father and son move back to small-town Louisiana from California, bringing along progressive ideas and a vegan business.

They were pleased with Spivey’s reaction.

“For her to say that it was a great idea, that it was funny and that it seems like it could actually be pitched to ABC and it work, that is a bit of a confidence booster,” Setzer said.

Hansley, a student from Greensboro, agreed.

“When you see somebody who came from your school, your hometown, it reaffirms that you can do this,” he said. “This is a very competitive field. Just to get a little bit of recognition that we’re on the right path is pretty cool.”