N&O: Handle N.C.’s ballots with care

I wrote this op/ed out of concern that our paper ballot law would be the victim of the political foodfight in Raleigh.

Handle N.C.’s ballots with care
Raleigh News & Observer
editorial | point of view

WINSTON-SALEM — News stories about a lack of competition for ballot printing in North Carolina feed a storyline of political corruption – but before we form conclusions we need to understand why there’s a lack of competition for ballot printing, and work for a solution that does not undermine the integrity of our election process.

Calls for more competition ignore the history of elections in 2004 and earlier, when we had a multitude of voting vendors with few legislated standards. That led to the loss of thousands of votes and an election dispute that lasted months. To prevent further election nightmares, the General Assembly in 2005 passed a one of the strongest election integrity laws in the country, one that has become a model for the nation.

It mandated paper ballots, post-election audits, higher standards for voting-supply vendors and systems, and set penalties for vendors caught lying. The law helped us weed out weak, incompetent or irresponsible voting-equipment vendors. In the process, three vendors were certified by the bipartisan State Board of Elections. Only one was willing to meet the standards of the law. Diebold dropped out of the bidding after a failed attempt to gut our paper-ballot requirement.

Subsequently, our state’s elections have improved. An audit showed that our 2008 presidential election was accurately counted. In the last presidential election we cut the “undervote” rate by more than half, from around 3 percent to only 1 percent. Many states still do not even have election audits. The State Board of Elections deserves praise for its effective implementation of this important law.

Competitive bidding for printers has to be very carefully conducted, with a certification process that requires long lead times to be effective. Printer tolerances are generally measured in fractions of an inch. Mistakes are easy to make and hard to detect. Switching printers in an election year means officials might discover printer problems too late in the game to fix them in time for an election. After one or two other printers have blown it, dependable printers tend to get the inside track.

And while there may not be a lot of competition in ballot printing here, there is some. Wake and a few other counties are paying from 13 and 15 cents apiece for ballots from a local printer who has been certified. So there is no monopoly on ballot printing.

Many counties have been buying ballots from a North Carolina business, Printelect at prices of 30 and 33 cents per ballot for many years. This price may be higher, but it is within industry standards and lower than what many other jurisdictions pay for ballot printing. Counties are free to seek out a certified printer that has a lower price, but it is crucial that printers are certified to meet standards.

Lowering our standards in the name of competition will bring back the bad vendors who caused so much havoc in 2004. That won’t do anything to reduce the costs of ballot printing, but it will bring back news stories such as we saw in 2004: “A Florida-style nightmare has unfolded in North Carolina in the days since Election Day, with thousands of votes missing and the outcome of two statewide races still up in the air.”

Competition is a good thing if there are strong competitors who are willing to stand behind their products. It is not the Board of Elections’ fault there is a lack of competitors. For example Diebold, which provided equipment used in a miserable election in Gaston County in 2004 – when 12,000 votes were not reported or tallied on election night – has since been sold to our current vendor, ES&S. Carteret County has said goodbye to the Unilect voting machines that lost 4,400 votes

If we are serious about reducing costs, and if we want to retain election integrity, we need to look toward open source voting systems, still with paper ballots. This will reduce maintenance costs while making upgrades easier. Open source systems are years off.

Meanwhile, weakening the Public Confidence in Elections Act to satisfy partisan outrage will not increase competition, will not reduce the costs of ballot printing and will threaten the integrity of our elections. How much will that cost?

Joyce McCloy is with the N.C. Coalition for Verified Voting.

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