News: Quick Takes

House Freedom Caucus stymied in voting machine probe

State Board of Elections Director Karen Brinson Bell, at a hearing in an N.C. Senate committee. (CJ photo by Maya Reagan)
State Board of Elections Director Karen Brinson Bell, at a hearing in an N.C. Senate committee. (CJ photo by Maya Reagan)

Karen Brinson Bell, executive director of the N.C. State Board of Elections, is blocking attempts by the N.C. House Freedom Caucus to inspect voting machines for possible irregularities.

Republicans are crying foul.

“What we actually seek to show the public is that the equipment in North Carolina is not a problem,” said Rep. Keith Kidwell, R-Beaufort, at a press conference on Thursday, July 15. “We seek transparency in the election process. The Freedom Caucus believes that every legal vote should be counted but not a single illegal vote should be counted.”

The Freedom Caucus — 25 House members and chaired by Kidwell — is seeking to inspect two voting systems in randomly selected precincts to ensure modems are not inside, which could allow for election results to be changed remotely.

Brinson Bell responded to Kidwell with a blistering letter denying the request. Her office subsequently contacted all county boards of elections directing them to not allow Freedom Caucus members to inspect voting equipment.

“The State Board has received no credible evidence that the certified results are not accurate, and elected officials from both sides of the aisle have stated that the 2020 general election in North Carolina was conducted fairly,” Brinson Bell wrote. “We will not allow misinformation about voting systems or any other aspect of elections to dictate our priorities in administering elections.”

“The request for inspection of field systems was to show the public that our State Board of Elections had cooperated with the Freedom Caucus and had nothing to hide,” Kidwell said at the news conference. “Now we have been denied access to these systems, and a wall with a threat of lawyers has been placed in our way by Ms. Brinson Bell.”

Kidwell said his caucus would take the necessary action to inspect the machines. He cited general statutes that direct state agencies and departments to furnish “all information and all data within their possession, or ascertainable from their records” in response to a request from a state lawmaker.

Kidwell said the manufacturer of most of North Carolina’s voting machines, ES&S, has been cooperative and compliant with lawmakers’ requests in the investigation.

“When we started this project, we were impressed by the cooperation of the State Board of Elections and its staff,” Kidwell said. “Now, we’ve hit a wall. That wall they are seemingly hiding behind. Ms. Bell, tear down that wall — unless you have something to hide.”

In an emailed statement to Carolina Journal, Noah Grant, a spokesman for the Board of Elections, wrote, “Election officials across North Carolina have full confidence in the election systems used in this state, and full confidence in the 2020 general election results. A series of audits and a statewide recount after the election confirmed the totals. There is no evidence that the certified results are not accurate, and election officials from both sides of the aisle have stated that North Carolina’s election was conducted fairly.”

Dr. Andy Jackson, director of the Civitas Center for Public Integrity, noted that part of lawmakers’ role is oversight of state bureaucracies, including the Board of Elections.

“Brinson Bell’s letter states concern about ‘unknown, unauthorized, or inexpert actors’ having access to election equipment,” Jackson said. “Legislation are certainly not ‘unknown’ or ‘unauthorized.’ If her concern is protecting voting equipment, Brinson Bell shouldn’t obfuscate. Instead, the State Board could allow handling of election equipment to be done by state or county election officials while legislators observe and ask questions. Cooler heads should prevail so that we can have legislative oversight without compromising election security.”

The skirmish has opened up another front in the ongoing partisan war between the GOP and Brinson Bell, who is a registered Democrat supported by the Democrat-controlled Board of Elections. The board recently voted along party lines to rehire Brinson Bell for another two-year term.

This session, lawmakers are running several bills meant to shore up election integrity, including a measure that would outlaw collusive settlements and three bills that would shift election law on absentee ballots and prohibits the private funding of elections administration, among other changes.