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When Damon Circosta, chairman of the state board of elections, voted in August to certify an elections equipment system opposed by local election security advocates, he said conversations with disability rights groups helped him make that decision.
Circosta, whose vote broke a 2-2 tie, was in his first meeting as board chair.
Carolina Public Press first asked Circosta on Aug. 23, the date of the meeting, about which disability rights groups he had talked with in making up his mind. A response, emailed by Board of Elections public information officer Pat Gannon, did not answer CPP’s question. Neither did records requests for communications between Circosta and any disability rights group or advocate.
The records showed that one person, Lawrence Carter, president of the Raleigh/Wake Council of the Blind, submitted a written statement and made public comment, but his views were in opposition to the voting system Circosta voted to certify.
When CPP reached out to Disability Rights NC, the primary advocacy organization for people with disabilities in the state, public policy director Corye Dunn confirmed the organization had talked with members and staff of the Board of Elections. Gannon confirmed that communication on Oct. 25, two months after CPP first asked. He did not name any other group.
No records exist of what was said because the conversations took place over the phone or in person.
Dunn also told CPP that her organization did not advocate for any specific voting system.
“We’ve communicated with the staff and members to ask them to certify new machines, to make it possible for counties to plan for any necessary purchases in this election cycle in a timely fashion,” Dunn said.
“We did not express a preference of which machines to certify, only that we wanted them to certify machines.”
The board of elections certified two other systems, from Clear Ballot and Hart InterCivic, in addition to the system that was at the center of contention, from Elections Systems & Software. The process to certify the systems took more than two years, and they are meant to replace old voting machines used by 23 counties. The legislature passed a bill that will sunset the old technology on Dec. 1.
Why it matters
“Every time we talk about (voting machines) for some voters but not all voters, it bothers me, that we will say, ‘Oh, we can use these, these are secure enough for our disabled voters, but they’re not secure enough not for everyone,’ ” Circosta said.
“I think it is really important that whatever system we put in place, we’re confident that it is secure for all.”
This talking point is commonly used by disability rights groups around the country, including by Michelle Bishop, the disability advocacy specialist for voting rights at the National Disability Rights Network. NDRN is the national parent organization for Disability Rights NC.
Circosta’s statement encapsulates a complex debate between disability rights groups and election security advocates. These kinds of debates determine what voting system voters will encounter when they go to the polls.
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The national consensus among disability rights groups is for all voters to use the same system when voting, according to David Becker, the executive director for the nonprofit Center for Election Innovation and Research. For North Carolina, that would mean that all voters use touch-screen computers to select their votes, and the computers would print out the ballot with those selections filled in.
Some election security advocates, including academics in statistics and computer science, question whether using voting machine for all voters is a safe way to conduct an election.
A lack of evidence
A key problem in the debate over the security of machine-for-all systems is that there is no scientific research on how often voters verify their ballots with these new systems or, if voters find problems with their ballots, what it would really take to discover a hack of the system.
The concerns over the security of voting-machine-for-all systems like the one approved for North Carolina are overblown, Becker told CPP.
“It’s not a bad question to ask,” Becker said. “It’s only a bad question to try to answer before it’s been researched.”
There is no evidence that the systems are secure, either.
But Becker and others say policies and procedures can be enacted in polling places that would increase the rate of voters verifying their ballots and solve other security concerns with voting-machine-for-all systems.
Becker also said a number of studies on this will be released within the next year, when these systems will have already been purchased by North Carolina counties for millions of dollars and used in major elections.
Some election security advocates argue that as few people should vote on machines as possible, while fully complying with accessibility requires in election law. These advocates say most voters should use hand-marked paper ballots and only voters who cannot mark a ballot by hand, perhaps due to vision or mobility impairments, should use voting machines.
The complaint from disability rights advocates – and the one echoed by Circosta – is that this creates a “separate but equal” system where the voting machines are not good enough for all voters, but are good enough for voters with disabilities.
This criticism is not necessarily an accurate critique, because the security concerns are limited to when large numbers of voters use voting machines rather than when they’re used as a tool to help voters with disabilities.
However, this allusion to the segregation and the civil rights movement is powerful, and the line has been used by elections directors across the country to help justify the purchase of certain voting systems.
Dunn never mentioned this “separate but equal” argument to Carolina Public Press, and did not advocate for voting-machine-for-all-voter systems to Circosta or the state board of elections, she said.
Dunn did express concern that the focus on election security is leaving voters with disabilities behind.
“None of that undoes the legal obligation to make elections accessible, but it’s important in budgeting and planning that that still be in official sight,” Dunn said. “That still needs to be part of their thought process.”
When counties only have one machine available for voters with disabilities, as is the case with hand-marked paper ballot systems, the accessible machine is often not set up, Dunn said. Disability Rights NC has records of voter complaints, but since it is a legal organization, those records cannot be shared.
No disability rights group has threatened litigation against the state board of elections over voting system certification, according to Gannon. That does not explain the stance of Circosta, who declined to be interviewed for this article.
How often do voters with disabilities face problems?
It is not clear how many voters with disabilities face problems when they try to vote in person.
CPP asked each of the 100 county boards of elections statewide for incident reports of malfunctioning accessible voting machines, voter complaints about those machines, and the number of voters who used the accessible machines in the 2016 and 2018 general elections.
Of the 42 counties that responded, only four counties reported incidents of any kind. Election officials universally stated that few voters used the accessible voting machines.
Terrence Meyers, Chowan County’s election director, said about one voter per precinct uses the accessible voting machine.
Cliff Marr, Polk County’s election director, said, “Absentee voting and curbside voting have been the alternative methods of choice.”
Jennifer King, Jones County’s election director, said no voter has used that county’s accessible voting machines since at least 2014 when she took the job.
Dawn Lovelace, elections specialist with Rutherford County, said almost every one of their voting machines, which are used for all voters, was configured as an accessible device. She said no voter has asked to use the audio ballot, a feature for visually impaired voters, since 2006 when the machines were first used.
It may be that many complaints simply are not captured.
“We don’t have, in our state, a particularly robust complaint process and don’t have a great source of data,” Dunn said.
Becker, who estimates having observed more than a thousand polling places, echoed Dunn’s concerns, adding that having only one accessible voting machine per precinct “forces voters with disabilities to self-declare. It also forces voters with disabilities … to know it’s available. Many of them might not, it might not be apparent.”
Few other good options for voters with disabilities
Absentee by mail voting does not work for all voters with disabilities, especially for voters in skilled nursing facilities or who are not accustomed to having many visitors, Dunn said.
The requirements in North Carolina that absentee voters have two witnesses sign the ballot, or have a notary public sign it, act as barriers for some voters with disabilities.
Disability Rights NC is engaging in a mailer campaign to the governor, state representatives, state board of elections, county boards of elections, and county commissioners to request that counties buy updated voting machines and that they consider online voting.
Where machine-for-all voting remains debatable, elections security experts unanimously agree that, at this time, internet voting is neither secure nor private.
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“I don’t know of an internet voting system right now that can be made fully secure and auditable,” Becker said.
The desire for email voting is understandable, Becker said, especially for voters who could otherwise be disenfranchised, like military and overseas voters.
Even getting basic information about elections is more difficult for voters with disabilities. Disability Rights NC is working with the state and county boards of elections to make their websites accessible, Dunn said.
Nearly every county had “significant inaccessible features on their website,” with some as simple as broken links or a document in the wrong format, Dunn said.
“I mean, some of them interestingly didn’t fail on accessibility, because there was almost no information on them, so there was nothing to be inaccessible,” Dunn said.
“But it means that our clients aren’t any worse off than voters without disabilities, which is frankly … it’s where we are.”
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