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N.C. reverts to paper ballots at big cost to counties

fr ballotsNorth Carolina is reverting back to paper ballots, forcing Haywood, Jackson and 29 other counties in the state to purchase completely new voting equipment by 2018.


To make the switch to paper ballots, Haywood County will have to scrounge up an estimated $1 million to replace all its voting machines, and Jackson County will have to find about $500,000. County tax payers will foot the bill.

“We will have to start preparing for this today,” said Robert Inman, director of the Haywood County Board of Elections.

The counties need to buy the equipment, which includes individual ballot booths, a scanner to read the ballots, ballot boxes, and the ballots themselves.

“Everything that we haven’t used for many, many years,” Inman said.

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Haywood County last used paper ballots in 2005, before switching to an electronic touch screen. The touch screen system was all inclusive: it had built-in voting booths around them and served as both the ballots and ballot boxes all in one. Jackson County uses the same electronic voting machines; its voters haven’t cast paper ballots since the 1960s.

Boards of elections will also need more security to protect the ballots, more poll workers to handle them and more storage space for the ballots once the election is over.

“It takes more people to operate on paper. You don’t require just a few poll workers,” Inman said. “This will not be painless.”

Politicians in the General Assembly who favored the switch to paper claim that electronic machines can malfunction and the paper ballots offer a concrete and tangible record of each and every vote.

N.C. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, argued that the cost is not much more than if counties had to replace aging electronic voting machines. The counties would eventually have to replace their computerized voting systems. Switching to paper ballot systems may be slightly “in excess of what it would cost to replace their machines anyway, but that cost should be minimal at best,” Davis said in an email.

Davis also said the state board of election informed him that most counties will replace their current election equipment following the 2016 election anyway.

Lisa Lovedahl-Lehman, director of the Jackson County Board of Elections, estimates that Jackson County’s 120 electronic voting machines will last about another five years.

“It would depend on the vote machines. We would still use them while they are sound and reliable,” Lovedahl-Lehman said. Or until they become illegal.

Inman said the life expectancy for Haywood County’s 187 voting machines is 14 to 18 years. By 2018, the machines will only be 13 years old.

Inman said he will recommend that the county hold off on purchasing the new equipment until 2018 draws closer. That will allow the county to save up money, plus the technology used for elections may change between now and then. Equipment used now could be obsolete in five years.

Boards of elections will have to ask their county commissioners for the money to buy the new equipment. Counties are responsible for funding election costs, including staff salaries and voting equipment. Lovedahl-Lehman said they try to be frugal.

“If we don’t need it, we don’t buy it,” she said. “Or we try to do it in-house.”

The Jackson election office returned as much as $50,000 back to the county one year thanks to penny-pinching. Lovedahl-Lehman said she hopes the commissioners consider that when faced with the $500,000 cost of new voting equipment.

“I hope that they do remember,” she said.

Macon and Swain counties already use paper ballots, so they will not be affected by the change.

“It will not affect us, thank goodness,” said Joan Weeks, director of the Swain County Board of Elections.


Voting accuracy

Another consideration in the paper ballot matter is storage. In Jackson County, each election generates three or four of boxes full of absentee ballots and rolls of ticker-tape computer printouts. That volume will likely quadruple once the switch is made to paper ballots, said Lovedahl-Lehman.

“You need to keep up with all the ones that have been voted and even ones that haven’t been voted,” Lovedahl-Lehman said.

Storage will likely be the number one challenge for Jackson County, she said, because of the small amount of space her office has. Ballots, both used and unused, must be kept for at least 22 months.

Next to cost and storage space, the biggest hurdle will be teaching people how to fill out the paper ballots. While it’s easy in theory — just fill in the bubble for the candidate you want — there is always the chance for human error. Inman said he has seen people color in circles for all the candidates in a race, only to mark out two.

The electronic machines also tend to be more accurate than paper ballots because they eliminate human error. The machines warn voters if they voted for too many people in one race and ask repeatedly if the person is sure about their vote.

“If there is one thing that frustrates people, it asks you too many times if you are sure,” Inman said.

It also forces people to review all their votes one last time before submitting them.

“The types of electronic voting we have now result in fewer errors,” said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University.

Cooper added that he is puzzled why state leaders would choose to use paper ballots in elections.

“It really is counter to what is happening in the rest of the country,” Cooper said.

Every year, Cooper has some of his students try to tally up votes from the 2008 Coleman-Franken U.S. Senate race. The election was so tight that it ended in a recount, and a number of the ballots were contested because it was difficult to gauge the voter’s intent.

Since starting the exercise, Cooper’s students have never gotten the same vote totals, he said. The count is subjective because marks may be barely there or someone may have tried to erase their original vote and cast one for the other candidate.

“Counting paper ballots is harder than it sounds,” Cooper said.

On the other hand, the votes from the electronic voting machines usually add up.

“Sometimes, it takes us five or six times, but they always come out correct,” Lovedahl-Lehman said.

Paper ballots will also increase the amount of time it takes to audit the votes. Every election, a couple of races are chosen for review. This helps ensure the accuracy of the vote counts. With the electronic machines, the audit only takes a couple days. With paper ballots, it will take longer.

“I am not looking forward to auditing 2,500 paper ballots,” Lovedahl-Lehman said.

Not to mention races where candidates ask for a recount.

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