Recently, the Guilford County Board of Elections selected a new paper ballot voting system to test, and eventually replace its current voting machines. The board also should have agreed to test an ExpressVote, or EV, machine, which produces a paper ballot.
The current touchscreen voting machines have been decertified by the State Board of Elections. Those machines do not produce a sufficient paper record to meet current state voting standards.
But here is why the ExpressVote machine would be a better replacement:
When I was in school, one of my professors gave the students in his class a blue book and pen to handwrite test answers. He warned us to write legibly because he would not give credit for answers he could not read. I was concerned. My handwriting was poor, and I had no way to know whether the professor could read my handwriting.
Word processors and printers, even 25 years ago, were adept at capturing written words on paper and producing a verbatim copy of the writer’s intent. Our professor allowed his students to use this well-established technology for taking the test. We could type our answers on a computer and print a copy of our answers to be graded. The computer could not grade my test, but the computer and printer could legibly record my test answers so the professor could assess my performance. This proven technology relieved my concern that I would not get credit for illegible test answers.
Soon Guilford County voters will fill out paper election ballots by hand. The paper ballots will be counted by a machine. The machine will be programmed to interpret the voter’s intent by matching the coordinates of his or her voting mark on the ballot with a candidate. The paper ballots can also be hand-counted for audits and recounts if required. This is a good system, and Guilford County voters should have confidence in it. However, it could be better.
The case for EV
The ExpressVote machine, and machines like it, are also certified by the state and produce a paper ballot. The EV records the voter’s intention in words and prints a legible record of the voter’s mark on paper. Voters scan proofread the ballots printed by the EV to make sure it correctly marked their votes. These ballots are then counted by the same machine used to count hand-marked ballots. Ballots printed by the EV can be hand-counted for audits and recounts, too.
The EV works like the computer and printer in my test-taking example; it produces a ballot that accurately reflects the voter’s intent. Just as the computer and printer could not grade my test, the EV cannot count votes. And just like the computer and printer, it can alleviate concerns that a handwritten mark is illegible and therefore will not be given credit.
The EV has a further advantage over a handwritten-only ballot system: It can be programmed to produce different ballot styles, just like a word processor can produce different styles of pages. This is particularly helpful and cost-effective during early voting, when voters from all over the county can vote at any early voting site. Guilford County may use more than 100 different ballot styles, depending on the election.
The EV prints the ballot style required by the voter. It can save millions of dollars that will be spent on storing, transporting, securing, and eventually destroying unused handwritten blank paper ballots. Although machines like the EV require a large initial expenditure, their cost can be quickly recouped, all while reducing the amount of paper wasted by less efficient systems.
New technology oftentimes meets with resistance, but the EV technology is not new. Just look at my test-taking example more than 25 years ago. The EV, specifically, has been criticized for producing a bar code along with words on its printed ballot. Bar codes are widely used and reliable.
A bar code on the ballot is used by the vote-counting machine, while the words are used by the voter and in any hand counts. Even handwritten ballots are interpreted by the vote-counting machine using a code.
The number of early voters will soon likely exceed the number of voters who choose to cast their ballots on Election Day. It is important that our county use the most reliable and cost-effective methods for voting. Voting systems that mark and print ballots, like the EV, should at least be tested for use in future elections.
The campus voting question
The Guilford County Board of Elections also has submitted two different early voting plans to the State Board of Elections for approval. One of these plans designates N.C. A&T as an early voting site; the other plan, called the minority plan, does not. UNCG is also used as a voting site in Guilford County.
Primary or secondary residential educational campuses are not well-suited for use as voting sites. Early voting, unlike voting on Election Day, requires sites to be open for several weeks, often 12 hours a day plus weekends. Most educational campuses lack the facilities, such as parking, to handle their own students and faculty members during normal operations, not to mention an influx of voters.
In a recent effort to assess UNCG as a voting site, I drove around campus on a normal school day in search of a place to park. The parking deck that would be used by voters was full, and all other spaces were occupied or designated for parking by permit only. A facility that has difficulty accommodating one car on one day will certainly encounter problems accommodating thousands of voters over a period of several weeks.
The practical concern of parking is not the only reason residential educational campuses are undesirable voting sites. The safety of students who live and study on campus should be taken seriously. Our young people have been subjected to unspeakable violence at school, including recently at UNC-Charlotte. School administrators across the country, including those in Guilford County, are spending millions of dollars to improve school safety, and rightly so. These efforts to secure our schools are not consistent with giving thousands of voters unrestricted access to campus for weeks at a time.
When facilities that can better accommodate voters without compromising student safety are available, they should be used in lieu of campuses. Students, like all citizens, should be encouraged to vote.
Ensuring student safety and finding easily accessible facilities for voting are also worthy goals.