Last week, seven tractor trailers pulled up at County Square and unloaded, uncrated, and certified a new era of voting for Greenville County.
It came in the form of 1300 new voting machines and 160 optical scanners that voters may be using as early as the Nov. 5 municipal and public service district elections.
The new system, called ExpressVote, is part of a $51 million purchase authorized by the state to replace the state’s 15-year-old cache of outdated direct recording electronic devices (DREs). The new machines are ballot-marking devices: Voters will make selections on an electronic screen. The machine will produce a printed record of the vote for the user to verify and then feed into an optical scanner. The scanner will tabulate and record all the votes, while keeping the paper receipts secured.
Both the old and new machines come from the same vendor – Election Systems & Software – a fact that rankles some who fear the too-cozy relationship between the company and the state Election Commission’s Executive Director Marci Andino presented a conflict of interest.
Conway Belangia, the county’s director of voter registration and elections, and his staff have been busy preparing for the new equipment and have a lot of work to do.
Belangia, who has 35 years of election administration experience, has connected with Nashville, TN, which uses ExpressVote and is similar in size and geography to Greenville. That relationship has helped identify some areas to target for both staff training and voter education.
The biggest adjustment for voters, according to Belangia, will be the three-step process: marking your choices, reviewing your ballot, putting your ballot into the scanner, which is the step necessary for your vote to be cast.
“Some people will want to walk out with the ballot. We hope to catch them before that,” he says.
That may mean more poll workers, better signage, and demonstrations to any organization of any size that requests one. One goal of those demonstrations could be to counter some of the attempts to dissuade voters prevalent on social media.
Belangia, who has spent a majority of his professional life ensuring the right to vote, fears the role of social media in planting seeds of doubt in voters’ minds. “The rhetoric of social media is attempting to affect voters. Don’t believe everything you hear. It is and has been a secure system,” Belangia insists, admitting that state actors have probed and, in two cases in Florida, breached voter registration systems. But “no vote has been changed that we are aware of.”
While that is true, there is plenty of concern about ongoing attempts to infiltrate voter registration systems, and the exposure of older voting equipment still in use.
Belangia says the community group demos will serve two purposes: familiarizing voters and community leaders with the new system, and countering the social media fear-stoking with information about the security of the vote and the security features of the system such as encrypted data that can only be read by a companion decryption key.
One of the organizations most interested in the new machines and their security is the Greenville County chapter of the League of Women Voters.
Its president Lawson Wetli agrees with Belangia. Yes, she says, the new system is a big improvement over the old. But it’s not as good as it could have been.
“The league lobbied hard for a hand-marked paper ballot system,” she explains as she delineates the reasons:
The optical scanner reads the printed barcode on the top of the ballot, not the choices listed below. You have to trust that the barcode accurately represents your vote. Belangia noted that standard auditing post election will involve “a random sample of votes chosen from all precincts will be hand counted to be sure the printed ballots matched the totals.”
“Will voters really verify their ballots,” she asks. “It looks like a receipt. We’re used to getting those and we rarely look at them.”
A bottleneck may be created because we will be limited by the number of terminals at each polling place. Where hand-marked ballots are only limited by number of pencils and partitions at a table.
Voting on the new machines may take longer and, with two big elections in front of us, that bottleneck could cause delays and voter abandonment.
Belangia plans a rigorous testing process to “ensure that machines are counting the way we are voting.” That testing, he explained will include “several test decks of all the scanners and all the ExpressVote terminals before we put any of them into an election.” County staffers have been to training in Columbia, and will have onsite training with ES&S reps once the equipment is ready. ES&S will have company reps available to the county on Election Day in November (potentially the first time the new machines may be used), Primary Election Day in February and Election Day 2020 to be sure things are done right and address any issues that may arise.
Wetli also has ideas on things we can do to make the system work. The first is to volunteer to be poll workers. More trained staff will almost certainly be needed in the next few critical elections. The second is to spread voting out to reduce bottlenecks on Election Day. “If you qualify for any of the broad areas to vote absentee, do it. Either in person or by absentee ballot.”
But Wetli and Belangia are in lock-step agreement on two things: The best way to protect our democracy is to participate in it.