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RALEIGH, N.C. – The same technology that helps keep inventories straight in stores is now being used in North Carolina to make sure that every vote counts. That fundamental goal can be hard to achieve; it’s impossible if a voter uses the wrong ballot.
To prevent that, the state has deployed handheld bar code scanners across a majority of precincts in this month’s election. The result could be more accurate and less expensive balloting.
In May’s primary election voting, a pilot system worked so well that the decision was made to go statewide. “The pilot caught numerous ballot distribution errors,” said Mark Burris of the North Carolina State Board of Elections.
A North Carolina poll worker scans documentation and a ballot, ensuring the correct ballot is used by the voter. Courtesy of North Carolina State Board of Elections.
The chance for a ballot mistake arises because different voters get different ballots because of a mix of federal, state and local elections. The voter’s age can also play a role. A 17-year-old North Carolinian who turns 18 by election day can vote in the presidential primary election, for example, or in the state’s early presidential election voting, but not in a referendum. If a referendum is up for consideration, voters who fall into the turning-18 category would have to get a different ballot from those who are already 18 and older. The number of ballot configurations can run in the hundreds, with voters at the same polling place potentially using a variety of ballots.
The use of the wrong ballot can invalidate a vote. Use of the wrong ballot by enough voters can force an election do-over, as happened in 2007 in Johnston County, North Carolina. The cost of a redo ranges from tens of thousands of dollars for a small city to millions for the entire state.
To prevent that, the state adapted technology used for inventory management, working with supplier CDW Government of Vernon Hills, Ill. The basis for the solution was clear, noted public sector sales manager, Jon Mazella. “Bar codes are ubiquitous.”
After considering several options, the final choice was a handheld bar code scanner from Motorola Inc. of Schaumburg, Ill. Key factors in the decision were the simplicity and the ergonomics of the device, which Burris characterized as looking like a Star Trek phaser.
In operation, poll workers first scan the voter’s documentation card and then the ballot, if paper is being used. In the case of an electronic voting machine, a code from the confirmation screen is entered in lieu of a ballot scan. If there is a mismatch between the documentation and ballot, the poll worker sees “Error No Match” and hears an alarm.
The system has been in use since early voting began on October 16. This way of matching of ballot to voter is unique to North Carolina, but other states could implement something similar in the future. As Burris noted, “It’s a simple solution for a problem that can be immense.”