GREENSBORO — Guilford County will spend about $2 million for new voting machines that use hand-marked ballots instead of the current supply of touchscreen, digital terminals.
The board voted 6-2 Thursday evening to go ahead with purchasing about 220 ballot scanners that both read and tabulate paper ballots to comply with a state law that takes effect next month.
The law requires the use of voting systems with paper ballots that voters can verify before submitting. County officials asked state legislators for a delay that would allow them to continue using the current touch-screen system through the 2020 election cycle, but were rebuffed.
Commissioners Carlvena Foster and Hank Henning voted against buying the new equipment. Commissioner Justin Conrad abstained.
Conrad said he was concerned that pending changes in federal voting laws would put a federal ban on the system the county was about to buy, the same way that the new state law has made Guilford’s existing system unusable.
County director of elections Charlie Collicutt said that it was a legitimate concern that a new federal law could invalidate some types of more elaborate voting technologies.
But of the equipment the board ultimately voted to buy, he said that he didn’t have that fear that he had with the other systems.
In a split vote last month, the county Board of Elections selected the hand-marked system over another that produced paper ballots but also used touchscreen technology similar to Guilford’s current equipment.
Guilford’s new system uses computer technology to scan and count ballots. But rather than voting on a computer screen as they do now, voters will fill out ballots the “old fashioned” way, using a pen to fill in multiple-choice bubbles denoting their selections.
County officials had planned to spend up to $8 million if the higher-tech alternative had been chosen, so “this style of voting machine will save the county approximately $6 million in upfront capital costs,” county administrators said in their written budget request.
“The unused $6 million can now be used by the county for other fiscal needs,” they said. “However, the selection will require an annual operating purchase of approximately $500,000 in paper ballots.”
Guilford officials had estimated the new system would cost $3 million or more, but they said Thursday the overall price will be lower because the county will receive a “trade-in credit” for its current equipment from the contractor, Election Systems & Software.
The purchase also includes about 2,000 portable “voting booths” that can be set up at precincts during elections to give people privacy as they mark their ballots.
The new system can be used by people with visual disabilities and provides “voter assist terminals” for every precinct to offer that service.
The “hand-marked” system was tested at a High Point precinct during recent municipal elections and it performed well, Collicutt told the commissioners Thursday evening.
Thursday’s purchase agreement will add about $185,000 per year in annual licensing, maintenance and warranty fees, election officials said.
Collicutt told commissioners that although the new system’s costs on the front end were significantly less than more elaborate technology, the high costs of printing many thousands of ballots every election would “equalize” that advantage as time passes.
State legislators changed the voting-machine law that takes effect next month to emphasize paper ballots as a way to ensure adequate records exist for recounts in disputed elections, to help prevent voter fraud and other types of chicanery, and to improve confidence among voters that their choices are being accurately recorded.
At recent meetings of the local election board, residents expressed a strong preference for “hand-marked ballots” over the touchscreen option.
At Thursday evening’s meeting, Guilford County Attorney Mark Payne told the commissioners they had few options open to them except buying a new system that complies with the new state law.
“My analysis of the situation is, in practical terms, you really don’t have a choice,” he said.
As a united board, the commissioners had reached out earlier this year to the North Carolina General Assembly asking for a reprieve that would allow Guilford to keep using the current touchscreen system through the 2020 election cycle.
State Rep. Jon Hardister said the House of Representatives agreed to the full delay, but the state Senate did not concur.
Instead, the two compromised by agreeing to let Guilford keep using its current touchscreen system only through next year’s primary elections, which county officials said was too short an extension to be helpful.