Voting machine test (copy)

Voter Marsha Allen carries her paper ballot to a voting machine for scanning at Deep River Friends Meeting in High Point, NC on Nov. 5, 2019. (H. Scott Hoffmann/News & Record)

HIGH POINT — The voters of Precinct H27-B took their status in stride Tuesday as guinea pigs for Guilford County's new, slightly retro-style voting system.

No one said their socks were blown away by Guilford's return to the hand-marked ballot after years of touchscreen computer voting in the precinct headquartered at Deep River Friends Meeting on West Wendover Avenue.

But neither did anyone register a serious complaint.

"It was fine. I don't think I have any real preference," said Sam Escue after using the new, old-fashioned system to vote in High Point's municipal elections.

Voter Karen Bartlett had a lukewarm response, saying she had no complaints about filling out the printed, multiple-choice ballot in ink.

"But at the same time, you wonder how secure is paper and will it make any difference," she said.

The county Board of Elections opted in a split decision last month to go with the new system of hand-marked balloting to comply with a state law that takes effect by year's end. The law requires voting machines with paper ballots so a clear record exists to help prevent election fraud.

Guilford has used touchscreen voting terminals for years as part of a system that does not meet the new law's specifications.

Local officials eschewed other touchscreen alternatives that employ paper ballots because a majority of board members said they believe a hand-marked system — one where voters fill out their ballots in ink — is more foolproof and inspires greater public confidence in election outcomes.

The Guilford board chose the DS200 system from Election Systems & Software Inc., which uses computerized equipment only at the end of the process to scan and count votes.

But before completing such a purchase, state law allows local officials to test a new system at a single precinct in an actual election.

County elections director Charlie Collicutt said he chose H27-B as the test precinct for a variety of reasons, including a location that would be easy for election administrators in both Greensboro and High Point to reach in case something went wrong.

Paul Dodge, the precinct chief for H27-B, said things went smoothly Tuesday, although there was light turnout at a polling place that serves about 2,000 registered voters.

Dodge saw advantages with the new system.

"What I see so far is that it takes less time to vote," said Dodge, who has worked at the precinct for about six years. "I think three minutes is the longest I've seen anybody take to mark a ballot. Then it's like 15 seconds to feed it into the machine."

By late morning, 49 voters had cast ballots at the precinct. Two hours later, the tally had only risen to 69.

Dodge said he initially expected a daylong total just shy of 250 voters, but he lowered his guesstimate to the mid-120s after such sparse turnout through midday.

Even so, Dodge said he could envision the system working well in a presidential election with much heavier turnout.

The precinct had a maximum of three touchscreen terminals previously, so only three people could vote at the same time under that system, he said.

With the new system, the number of voters filling out ballots at the same time was limited only by the half-dozen "privacy enclosures" on site Tuesday, each providing a sheltered spot for a voter to fill out the printed form in secrecy.

When done, voters took their ballots to the computerized tabulator and fed them into the machine.

Dodge said the new system contains multiple checks and balances to assure accuracy.

The tabulator records all votes on a USB flash drive for computer counting. But each paper ballot also is carefully preserved inside the tabulator, Dodge said, and the machine prints out a pair of identical reports at day's end showing every vote cast.

Dodge estimated that among voters who expressed a preference, sentiment ran about 35-to-1 in favor of the new system.

Happy campers liked the new system's speed and the ability to see the whole ballot at once as opposed to the touchscreen's one-page-at-a-time scenario, he said.

One person reported liking the touchscreen better because it allowed voters to review their ballots before the computer digested it, Dodge said.

The new system does not permit that after the ballot has been inserted into the tabulator. Instead, the tabulator simply reports, "Ballot accepted," Dodge said.

Contact Taft Wireback at 336-373-7100 and follow @TaftWirebackNR on Twitter.

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