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NC Elections Chair Says He's Confident In Ballot Security

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Big changes in voting are in the works for a third of North Carolina counties that use touch-screen voting, including Mecklenburg. Beginning as soon as next year, touch-screen voting machines may be replaced by those that generate a paper ballot – which the voter then feeds into a counter.

In a split vote Friday, the state elections board approved three systems that counties can choose from. One system includes a bar code that is scanned to record the vote. That’s received a lot of pushback from groups, including the League of Women Voters and the state chapter of the NAACP.

Damon Circosta is the new chairman of the elections board. He voted to certify the bar code machine, and he joins WFAE's "Morning Edition" host Lisa Worf to talk about the process.

Lisa Worf: Skeptics of the machines that generate barcodes worry it won't inspire confidence from voters and that hackers may be able to change the barcodes. What made you decide to go ahead and certify them?

Damon Circosta: Well, certainly, for the first time in decades, I think people need to remember that 2020 will be the first time in North Carolina where we will have every voter voting on a paper ballot. How those paper ballots are created are basically two different procedures. One is a "fill in the oval with a pencil" and the other is to use something called a ballot marking device.

And a ballot marking device lets all voters, whether or not they have a disability or issues with the ovals, fill out a ballot, print that ballot, take it to a separate machine, review it and then stick it in the tabulator, and that does two things for us.

A, It should give voters confidence regardless of what mechanism they use to fill out their ballot that they've seen their paper ballot, and then B, if we need to go back and audit that thing, we can do that. And so all of the various vendors who came before us in this most recent vendor certification process created a paper ballot and that was important for me.

Worf: But the bar code puts in an extra step in that it is not the ovals besides the names that are counted, but it's a barcode that is counted. So, what makes you confident that that bar code is going to be read the right way?

Circosta: Well, certainly any time you have a microprocessor in the voting process you've got to make sure you're concerned about security. We use all sorts of computers and all facets of how we garner voter intent. So, we use microprocessors in the tabulation machines. We use them in the electronic poll books.

We use them in various different capacities to make sure that our votes are counted and counted correctly. Having more CPUs, as you would with these ballot marking devices, requires us to make sure that our security procedures are tight.

And I have full confidence that not only the vendors who are before us but here at the state Board of Elections we have those security measures in place and we're seeking to improve them even as we go. You know, as threats evolve so must our procedures and I'm 100% committed to making sure that we are first in the nation when it comes to having a secure vote.

Worf: And as far as the hacking side of it, how confident are you there?

Circosta: Very confident. So, one of the things that we made sure that we do is once we have our computers, be they electronic poll books, be they tabulation machines, be they these ballot marking devices, we take them offline, and so there is no direct connection to the internet when these things are being used.

And then we make sure that the security procedures around them are tight. And, obviously, hacking is always a concern, but these ballot marking devices are no different than the various other devices we use in our election process.

We have to be mindful, we have to be careful but we're not going to walk away from all technology when we're making sure that we're securing your vote, and so we want to make sure that we get it right.

Worf: So, what's next on the board's agenda?

Circosta: Well, one of the things I think we need to do is we need to make sure that as we have these evolving threats to security that all of our procedures are safe and secure. And so I'd like to see us move to a more robust postelection audit and to make sure our pre-election testing is first in the nation.

I'd like to make sure that we have as much early voting opportunities as we possibly can, and then just go about the business of creating safe, secure and accessible elections for the people of North Carolina.

Worf: And what does the post-election audit look like now?

Circosta: So, our post-election audit procedures now are fine. I will give them a B-plus. I want to be an A-plus. What we do is we take a sample from various precincts and we hand count one of the races in those precincts through various counties. And so every county gets an audit. I'd like to see us do more.