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Election security in state officials’ hands in light of statements by Trump, Tillis

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The North Carolina State Board of Elections (SBE) met Thursday to, among other things, consider certification of new voting systems. Before the board’s discussion, a few members of the public presented prepared statements. The first came from Lynn Bernstein, a North Carolina voter, who spoke about the extreme risk to election security posed by electronic voting machines, especially those created by Election Systems and Software.

Election Systems and Software (ES&S), the nation’s top voting machine maker and one of the companies whose machines the NC SBE plans to certify, admitted in a letter to U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) in April of 2018 that it had installed the remote-access software pcAnywhere on a number of election systems that it had sold. This admission was in direct contrast to a previous statement ES&S made in February of that year, in which the company stated that none of its voting systems had ever been sold with any remote-access software on them.

“Remote-access software and modems on election equipment is the worst decision for security short of leaving ballot boxes on a Moscow street corner,” said Bernstein, quoting a statement Sen. Wyden made to Motherboard. Bernstein argued that a company that had repeatedly lied about the nature of its machines and had only revealed the truth after being caught in its lies could not be trusted to help keep North Carolina’s elections safe.

“This begs the question: why is this board trusting ES&S’ word that these machines are secure and accurate?” asked Bernstein.

Bob Cordle, the chair of the SBE, pushed back against Bernstein’s arguments.

“In my experience… we had more problems with hand ballots than we did with any other ballots,” said Cordle. “There was more lying, cheating, and stealing going on… and also questions about… there were lots of questions about whether the oval was filled in, whether both ovals were filled in, so there are problems with hand ballots, too.”

“The research showed that 0.007% of ballots have stray marks,” said Bernstein. “That’s very, very few.”

“All I know is we saw a number of them,” said Cordle. “But I don’t wanna’ argue with you.”

Despite Cordle’s defense of electronic ballots, the SBE ultimately opted to require that any voting machines potentially receiving certification would be required to produce a paper ballot. But the insistence that each system is equally likely to have problems seemed to signal a future willingness by the SBE to introduce and certify electronic voting machines, despite increasing concern about election security.

The SBE’s discussion of voting machines which are more susceptible to hacking came on the heels of an alarming statement by President Donald Trump on Thursday, in which he said that if offered information about a political opponent by a foreign adversary, he would strongly consider using the information without alerting the FBI.

Senator Thom Tillis took what one could call a somewhat more moderate stance, saying he would alert the FBI, but would then corroborate the information.

This unwillingness of Trump and his legislative allies to acknowledge that foreign interference into our elections is wrong is especially troubling, considering that a number of bipartisan election security bills are likely to die in Congress.

Some lawmakers have realized the urgency of getting these bills passed before the 2020 election, but according to Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), none of these bills will get to the floor.

“I don’t see any likelihood that those bills would get to the floor if we marked them up. I think the majority leader is of the view this debate reaches no conclusion,” said Sen. Blunt in a statement.

Translation: At this point, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (and thereby, Congress as a whole) have little interest in making our elections more secure.

One can only hope officials in North Carolina and other states will continue to pick up the slack.

Aditi Kharod is a student at UNC Chapel Hill and an intern at NC Policy Watch.

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