GUILFORD COUNTY — Leaders of Guilford County are finding out that democracy can come with a stiff price tag.
At the second and final day of its annual retreat Friday, the Guilford County Board of Commissioners expressed annoyance and frustration with a pending state mandate to replace all their voting machines at a potential cost up to $7 million.
The N.C. General Assembly passed a law that would put the county’s 439 voting machines out of compliance because of the way the electronic machines tabulate votes. The state wants to move toward machines that tabulate votes cast on paper, such as the ones used in Randolph County in which voters fill in a “bubble” that’s read by a machine, as opposed to Guilford County machines in which voters cast ballots electronically with a paper backup trail.
County Elections Director Charlie Collicutt told the commissioners the current machines — in place for 12 years — would be out of compliance in September 2019. The county has used the current machines — which met federal standards last decade under congressional election reforms — without any incident or major issues through three presidential campaigns.
Two commissioners expressed frustration that the General Assembly has handed the county what amounts to an unfunded mandate, since Collicutt told the board that the election machine replacement bill doesn’t include state funding for new machines.
There is legislation percolating at the state capital that would provide some level of matching state funds, Collicutt said.
Board of Commissioners Vice Chairman Justin Conrad was blunt in expressing his frustration.
“I don’t see any sense in this at all,” said Conrad, a Republican commissioner from Greensboro.
Conrad urged his fellow commissioners to convince legislators to either scuttle the new voting machine requirement or, at minimum, have the state provide funding to help foot the bill.
Republican Commissioner Jeff Phillips of Greensboro said if the state does provide matching funds for the new voting machine replacement cost, the allocation should be prorated to larger counties, such as Guilford, to reflect their higher expense with greater numbers of voting machines.
At the retreat, the commissioners voted to set aside the allocation for the new voting machines contingent on negotiations with state legislators to remove the requirement or secure funding from the General Assembly.
The county’s current voting machines can be used during this year’s primary and general elections. Under the current state voting machine mandate, a new voting system would have to be in place for the 2019 municipal primary elections in October of next year.