RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Countering any voter anxieties about the integrity of the ballot box, North Carolina officials embarked Thursday on a public campaign to highlight current safeguards and strategies against interference entering the 2020 elections.
The “Your Vote Counts NC” effort will emphasize social media to make the state’s 6.8 million voters— a number likely to grow in the next year — aware that protecting free elections is an ongoing effort by federal, state and county agencies.
“We want all the voters to know all the steps we’re taking to ensure fair and accurate elections, so voters will be confident that their vote counts,” State Board of Elections Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell said at a news conference.
The campaign follows a tumultuous period in elections nationwide and in North Carolina.
A U.S. Senate committee’s report released this summer found that the Russian government directed “extensive activity” against U.S. election systems, likely targeting all 50 states, ahead of the 2016 election. But the committee saw no evidence of altered voters or manipulated machines, the report said.
A 2018 North Carolina congressional election also had to be redone this year, as last November’s results in the 9th District were invalidated following absentee voting fraud allegations that ultimately led to criminal indictments. In response, state legislators are debating how to tighten rules related to mail-in absentee ballots.
State and county officials are preparing to comply with a voter photo identification mandate set to begin next year. A different voter ID requirement was carried out briefly in 2016 but ultimately got struck down in court.
Speakers at Thursday’s event identified several longstanding protective measures, including the prohibition for voting equipment to be connected to the internet or accessed through Wi-Fi. Machines are calibrated before every election, Bell said, and after election day ballots are counted by hand in sample precincts in all counties to ensure accuracy.
The state’s Emergency Operations Center will continue to be activated on election nights in 2020 to respond to unexpected threats.
Cybersecurity methods continue to be upgraded, with the receipt of routine updates from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and election security consortiums to block suspicious Internet addresses, board Chief Information Officer Brian Neesby said. DHS also conducted a thorough review of state election systems last year.
The multi-partner efforts are creating defenses that “hopefully everyone can have confidence in going forward and ensure that the vote from all aspects is secure from cyberattack,” said Torry Crass, a cybersecurity adviser to the state board.
A critic of the states’ election systems says North Carolina’s public campaign is creating a false sense of security about the strengths of its defenses against malicious actors. Susan Greenhalgh with the advocacy group National Election Defense Coalition said later Thursday in a release that North Carolina election officials are “bringing a knife to a gun fight” by relying on standard election practices to attempt to block foreign hackers.