The State Board of Elections said cybersecurity worries prompted a delay in certifying election system vendors to sell voting machines to counties.

In her first state board meeting Thursday, June 13, new Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell urged the board to require vendors seeking certification to disclose all ownership interests of 5% or greater.

After a lengthy closed executive session, the board unanimously approved Bell’s proposal to modify the Elections Systems Certification Program. Vendors have until noon Friday, June 21 to submit documentation. The mandate covers owners and shareholders of the voting machine companies, their subsidiaries, and parent companies.

Board Chairman Bob Cordle said the board acted after it was alerted to cybersecurity concerns. The concerns included some cited in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Separately, the Department of Homeland Security is working with state elections officials to determine if Russian hackers played a role in Durham County’s 2016 voting equipment malfunctions.

The board was scheduled to certify three voting machine vendors — Massachusetts-based Clear Ballot, Nebraska-headquartered Election Systems & Software, and Hart Intercivic of Texas. No new date has been set for a vote.

“We want to ensure that the board has all necessary information before making the very important decision about voting equipment that will be used in future North Carolina elections,” Brinson Bell said. Information about the companies was posted to the agency’s website during the meeting.

ES&S is the only certified election system vendor in North Carolina. But all three systems meet federal standards, and are approved by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. They’re used elsewhere, and completed North Carolina’s testing process, including a simulated election and other tests.

Several public speakers spoke out against the state’s use of touchscreen voting equipment, known as direct-record-electronic machines. The DRE machines will be decertified Dec. 1. The state is moving toward using either paper ballots or voting equipment that produces paper ballots for all voters. Vendors would be required to post a $17 million surety bond if equipment failure required a new election.

Marian Lewin of the League of Women Voters of Wake County said her group opposes DRE machines because they undermine voting integrity. Voters believe DRE machines are vulnerable to hacking from outside forces, and lack of operational transparency among voting machine vendors poses threats.

“Our democracy is at risk. Faith in government, at all levels, is at an all-time low,” Lewin said. “Trust in elections is one of the most important issues facing our country.”

She said only hand-marked paper ballots and a follow-up audit securely and accurately record and count a voter’s choices. They provide a paper record that can be audited in the 22-month period required by federal law.

In other action, the board:

  • Certified the results of the May 14 Republican primary election for the 9thU.S. Congressional District. State Sen. Dan Bishop, R-Mecklenburg, won with 47.68% of the vote in the 10-candidate field. He’ll face Democrat Dan McCready in a Sept. 10 general election. The special election follows the board’s refusal to certify the November 2018 results due to election fraud and widespread irregularities. (See full Carolina Journalcoverage here.)
  • Voted unanimously to send draft photo voter ID rules for absentee, by-mail voting to the N.C. Office of Administrative Hearings for publication. A public comment period runs from June 21 to July 12. A public hearing will be held at the elections board at 1 p.m. July 11. Permanent rules must be adopted by Jan. 1, 2020.

The rules outline acceptable forms of photos. They will allow exemptions for religious objections, natural disasters, or reasonable impediments such as sickness and disability.