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A man holds a ballot card with bar codes during a voting machine demonstration in Raleigh on Aug. 16.

North Carolina election officials made a serious misstep last week that threatens to make a bad situation worse. Even though it would be inconvenient and costly, the State Board of Elections should reverse its decision to allow voting machines that use bar code ballots in next year’s elections.

By a tight 3-2 vote, the board decided to allow N.C. counties to buy voting equipment that digitizes votes into bar code data, which is then tallied by counting machines. The machines may be technologically sound, but they lack the clear paper record that an increasing number of North Carolina citizens feel is necessary to be certain that their votes are counted.

We hope every single N.C. county election board will have the foresight the state election board lacks and give those machines a hard pass.

State election board member Ken Raymond, a Forsyth County resident, says that people objecting to bar code ballots are “inconsistent at best” because they accept the technology when it comes to grocery purchases.

But an accurate vote tally is much more consequential than 10 cents off a pound of apples. We’ve got to feel more confident in the results of our elections than in our grocery receipts.

“We have heard voters don’t like this. Voters do not trust this, and that’s their judgment to make,” board member Stella Anderson, who voted against the bar code data, said. “Bar codes are not human-readable. The whole purpose of a paper ballot is to be able to recount or audit the voter’s votes in a way independent of any possibly hacked or buggy computers.”

She’s right, and for a multiplicity of reasons.

Russian meddling in the 2016 extended further than costly investments in Facebook ads and spreading fake news stories. A report by the Senate Intelligence Committee released in July revealed that Moscow tried to hack election voting systems in all 50 states. Its efforts continue to this day and will through 2020.

On top of that, we have our own problems when it comes to voter confidence that include gerrymandered districts, voter suppression, ballot tampering and claims of voter fraud.

Many voters in the state are now on edge, wondering if they’ll be able to trust 2020 election results. Put that together with a sharply divided electorate, and whatever the outcome of the 2020 elections, someone’s going to claim that some election was rigged. (It might even be the current president.) Others will believe the claims — especially if they dislike an election outcome.

The State Board of Elections has an obligation to the public to foresee and counter this perception. A paper record, transparent and easily audited, is essential to make sure that our elections are secure and free from manipulation and corruption — so says common sense.

The combined National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine says so, too, in a study released last year that urged that elections use human-readable paper ballots that people can inspect and recount.

Our state legislature also has a role to play in defending fair elections. Its members should consider the current lack of confidence an urgent situation that requires an immediate solution. They should sit down with Gov. Roy Cooper and good-government advocates, put aside all partisanship and do whatever it takes to ensure the public will find North Carolina elections to be unimpeachable.

Of course, that’s asking a lot from officials who haven’t been capable of giving a lot.

But they must. This is a disaster we can see coming from a year away. Steps to prevent it must begin now.

The United States is one of the most powerful democracies in history. Our elections must be fair, above partisan influence and the appearance of corruption. We’ve slipped away from that in recent times. We’ve got to turn back now while we can.

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