Through Friday, staffers at the Forsyth County elections office will be busy casting test ballots as they check all 302 of the county's voting machines in advance of this fall's general election.
It's an exercise they go through before each election.
"We put together a set of test ballots," explained Tim Tsujii, the elections director here. "We put together a predetermined vote pattern. We intentionally create over-voted ballots and under-voted ballots. We put in blank ballots. What we test is every ballot style that appears in the precinct."
Tsujii said the voting process has multiple safeguards and that people should not be concerned that their votes won't count or might be miscounted.
For starters, everything is under lock and key. Only election workers have access to the place where the voting machines are stored, and each machine is locked as well.
When someone casts a vote, the tabulator — the machine that counts the votes as voters stick in their ballots — keeps track with a flash drive that's locked away as well. And there's a backup flash drive in another part of the machine.
And, as Tusjii points out, the physical ballots all drop into a secure bin at the bottom of the machine, in case anyone ever had to count the ballots manually.
Although a lot gets said about the computer hacking of elections, Tsujii noted that the machines used in Forsyth County are not networked with each other. Each is a standalone machine.
The county has 101 precincts, and 163 different styles of ballots. There are more ballot styles than precincts because of the way that district and municipal lines divide the county.
For instance, Precinct 63, which votes at East Forsyth Middle School, includes parts of Winston-Salem, Kernersville and Walkertown as well as unincorporated parts of the county. Voters in each of those areas need a different ballot style because they have different sets of candidates to choose from.
Election officials said it takes 11 to 44 ballots to test each voting machine, depending on which precinct it serves.
Before testing each machine, workers mark up sample ballots to deliver a predetermined result. Then the ballots are fed into the tabulator and checked to see if the results match.
Sometimes a machine is found to be delivering bad results, and that machine is taken out of service.
"Every now and then, you would get one or two machines that do not meet the testing standards," Tsujii said. "Most of the time it's due to hardware issues."
Or, that's how things used to be: Since the county invested in an entire brand-new set of voting tabulators and touch-screens in late 2019, Tsujii doesn't expect to find anything wrong during the current round of testing.
"We still have warranty on these, so if something were to happen to one, we can send it back." Tsujii said. The county bought the new voting equipment, including a couple high-speed tabulators, for $1.6 million.
People who voted in the March 3 primary have already experienced voting on the new equipment, but for those who did not, here are some of the changes from the previous experience of voting in the county:
- In the past, people who took part in early voting did so using a computerized touch screen. Now, both early voters and those who vote on Election Day will fill out a paper ballot that is then fed into a machine called a tabulator.
The tabulator will tell the voter if any overvotes have been cast, which gives the voter a chance to ask for a new ballot. An overvote occurs when a voter marks more choices than allowed in a particular contest.
- Touch-screen voting remains an option for people with disabilities, but any other voter can vote that way by request. Each of the county's 101 precincts will have a tabulator for the hand-marked ballots and a touch-screen machine. The touch-screen machines are different from the ones used in the past because they produce a physical ballot that the voter can then feed into the tabulator.
The testing of the equipment at the county board of elections is public, but because of COVID-19 spacing requirements, elections officials can take only a small number of people at a time.
While slots are filling up to watch, Tsujii said people can call the elections office at 336-703-2800 to see if any vacancies remain.
The testing started on Wednesday and will wrap up on Friday.
"It is to ensure the accuracy of the voting equipment and its readiness for use during in-person voting," Tsujii said. "It is a required activity that has to be conducted before every election."
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