How we can secure the vote in North Carolina

A roll of stickers awaits voters as they come out to cast their ballots in the mayoral race at Sertoma Park in Raleigh, NC, in Nov. 2017.
A roll of stickers awaits voters as they come out to cast their ballots in the mayoral race at Sertoma Park in Raleigh, NC, in Nov. 2017. cseward@newsobserver.com

Days ago, I met with other election chiefs from across the country in Washington for a series of classified and unclassified briefings on election security. The conference began just hours after the U.S. Department of Justice indicted 13 Russian nationals and three Russian companies for their efforts to influence voters in 2016. Here in North Carolina, operatives posed as Americans to spread disinformation about voter fraud before the election and organized a “Charlotte Against Trump” rally after the election, according to the indictments.

But foreign adversaries went further, targeting voting technologies and elections systems in a number of states. No current evidence suggests that vote tallies changed or that North Carolina’s systems were directly targeted.

Make no mistake: the threat is real and the goal is to erode trust in elections and in each other. North Carolina is on the right track in defending against this threat, and the Bipartisan State Board of Elections & Ethics Enforcement will continue to use all available tools to defuse it.

Our state benefits from a new and deepening partnership with the Department of Homeland Security and others in the intelligence community, whose work has already bolstered cybersecurity here and will continue to shape our defensive posture. Our agency conducts some of the most sophisticated post-election audits in the country aimed at detecting irregularities in vote tallying processes and county data. We will continue to build upon those audits to identify and address any potential new threats.

North Carolina requires a viewable paper trail for all ballots cast in our elections. In counties that still use touchscreen voting systems the paper trail is not a paper ballot but a paper roll housed in the system. We are, however, proceeding toward a total shift to paper ballots in all elections by 2019, a process started by the N.C. General Assembly in 2013. Most of the state’s 100 counties already use paper ballots. Soon, they all will.

Over the past year, we have strengthened and modernized certification standards for voting systems in an effort to ensure only the most secure and user-friendly systems are permitted in our state. Our citizens can trust that further securing the vote is a driving priority for our agency.

In the coming weeks, civil staff at the State Board will request statutory changes informed by lessons learned since 2016. As I indicated to a state legislative committee in January, those requests will include authority to require background checks for those with access to sensitive systems, restrictions on network-connected voting equipment, and the addition of in-house cybersecurity expertise, among others.

Securing the vote and maintaining public confidence in elections remain a critical challenge for North Carolina, which has looked to our agency for more than a century to steward the democratic process. It has been the privilege of my professional life to work alongside a team committed to guarding elections against unlawful influence, error, and attack.

This agency will do its part to secure the system, trusting ultimately that the voting public will deprive our enemies of their final goal: distrust in our democracy. We are worth defending.

Kim Westbrook Strach is executive director of the Bipartisan State Board of Elections & Ethics Enforcement, the state’s chief elections official. She has served at the agency for 18 years.