As intelligence officials allege foreign interference in election, here’s how the state and county secures votes

United States intelligence officials are accusing Iran and Russia of trying to influence public opinion surrounding the 2020 election.

Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe alleged Wednesday night at a press conference that some voter registration information has been obtained by Iran and separately by Russia. 

“This data can be used by foreign actors to attempt to communicate false information to registered voters that they hope will cause confusion, sow chaos, and undermine your confidence in American democracy,” Ratcliffe said. 

Election Security in North Carolina and Watauga County

Matt Snyder, Watauga County director of elections, said there is little the county board can do concerning misinformation spread on social media. 

I assure you, there are people monitoring the situation and providing guidance as needed,” Snyder said. “The counties and states serve a role in the ‘see something, say something’ campaign to bring attention to areas of concern.”

While the board can’t control social media and what information the voters choose to believe, they can secure every voter’s ballot and make sure it’s counted on Election Day. There is a lot of election security in Watauga County that goes on behind the scenes, Snyder says. 

First, the board of elections updates county voter registration lists on a weekly basis. Snyder said the county does this with a variety of data and information they get from other agencies. 

When a voter submits an absentee ballot, a bipartisan county board of elections ensures that the voter correctly filled out the absentee ballot form so the board can approve it. 

“They then open the envelope, remove the ballot and insert the ballot into the tabulator on behalf of the voter,” said Karen Brinson Bell, executive director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections.

Before every election, county boards of elections also conduct logic and accuracy tests on every machine to ensure proper ballot coding and vote counting for every contest on the ballot. 

Voting machines are also certified by the state board of elections after additional testing, and all systems used in North Carolina are certified, used and audited in other states, according to the state board. 

Excepting when the Watauga County Board of Elections approves each absentee ballot, the ballots are kept in a fireproof safe before, during and after the election. 

“We keep all those in case there’s ever any need to go back and review anything,” Snyder said. “The records retention is 22 months.” 

If the county board sees something questionable, Snyder said they will bring it to the attention of state investigators or Homeland Security. 

Snyder said the board does its best to look for anything out of the ordinary “try to investigate those as best as possible to make sure that eligible voters are the only ones that are voting.”

After each election, the state board and county boards conduct audits of the election that are designed to detect irregularities, such as equipment tampering, ballot stuffing and voting machine or tabulation errors.

Before Nov. 3, early votes and absentee ballots are counted every time they are run through a voting machine each day. The voting machine has multiple memory devices to secure the results. 

On Election Day — after polls close — those machines then tabulate the results which are put into the state board’s election night reporting system.

“Board members (and) county staff have no knowledge of what the results are until Election Day when we release those to the public,” Bell said. 

Bell also said no part of a voting machine, by law, is connected to the internet. 

National Election Security

Officials say Iran has already used the information to intimidate voters and cause social unrest through emails. 

Ratcliffe, a political appointment of President Donald Trump, alleged the emails were designed to hurt Trump, but the content of the emails was aimed at registered Democrats and threatened them to change their vote. 

“These actions are desperate attempts by desperate adversaries, even if the adversaries pursue further attempts to intimidate or attempt to undermine voter confidence,” Ratcliffe said. “Know that our election systems are resilient, and you can be confident your votes are secure.”

The FBI is the primary agency responsible for investigating malicious cyber activity against election infrastructure, malign foreign influence operations, and election-related crimes like voter fraud, voter suppression or intimidation.

FBI Director Christopher Wray said the agency is working with the intelligence community and federal, state and local partners in regards to election security. 

“We are not going to tolerate foreign interference in our elections or any criminal activity that threatens the sanctity of your vote, or undermines public confidence in the outcome of the election,” Wray said. 

The director also said the FBI is working with the technology and social media companies to make sure those platforms are not being used by foreign adversaries to spread disinformation. 

“We encourage everyone to seek election and voting information from reliable sources, namely your state election officials, and to be thoughtful, careful and discerning consumers of information online,” Wray said.