Note: This article was first published by Carolina Public Press on April 26. Carolina Public Press is an independent, in-depth and investigative nonprofit news service for North Carolina.
North Carolina counties finished testing their voting machines and election reporting systems last week in preparation for voting, which begins in person on Thursday ahead of the May 17 primary.
Voting in modern elections relies on a series of computers to count and report votes. North Carolina counties completed the voting machine review, called “logic and accuracy” testing, and a mock election to make sure results uploads were running smoothly by April 21, according to the state’s election calendar.
“We conduct these tests to ensure that tabulation and results reporting go smoothly on election nights, and so county board staff are comfortable with the process,” said Pat Gannon, spokesperson for the N.C. State Board of Elections.
That North Carolina combines its testing of logic and accuracy with mock elections to prepare for elections is a great practice, according to Mark Lindeman, director of Verified Voting, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit organization dedicated to elections security.
These tests are just one part of the overall structure protecting elections, Gannon said.
“Any voter is welcome to view these processes as they occur, ask questions of their county board of elections or the State Board and become an election worker to see the process firsthand,” Gannon said.
How it works
A logic and accuracy survey tests everything elections officials have control over, according to Genya Coulter, senior director of stakeholder relations for the Open Source Election Technology Institute, a California-based nonprofit that works to improve elections technology globally.
In North Carolina, the State Board of Elections distributes a logic and accuracy checklist. To check voting machines, elections staff members mark test ballots and run them through machines that scan the ballots and count the votes.
If the machines don’t count the votes with perfect accuracy, the test is run again, according to Derek Bowens, Durham County’s election director.
The tests make sure the ballot styles are correct for each precinct, the ballots are printed correctly, the machines are scanning correctly, the machines recognize when multiple ballots are accidentally fed at the same time, if humidity in the ballot paper affects scanning and a number of other technical measurements that can affect vote counts, Bowens said.
The county then runs a mock election by taking the logic and accuracy results and uploads them to the state’s election night reporting system, which is how the public learns of election results. This is all a practice run to make sure things run smoothly on Election Day, when counties tally votes from already-returned by-mail ballots, early in-person voting and Election Day voting.
These kinds of tests are very important because many of the problems with computerized counting of votes come down to programming errors, Lindeman said.
“Anything that goes wrong on election night both rattles the public and distracts from other important work that election officials should be doing,” Lindeman said.
Bipartisan trust in the process
In Durham County, the bipartisan Elections Board of three Democrats and two Republicans signs off on the logic and accuracy results to confirm the machines are ready to be used in the election.
In Surry County, Elections Director Michella Huff goes a step further. She hires bipartisan teams of poll workers to mark the test ballots and put them in the voting machines. Any registered voter in a county who is not a candidate or candidate’s relative can sign up to be a poll worker.
The process was also open to the public, announced on the county’s website and social media, and Board of Elections meetings are available to watch online, Huff said. So far, she hasn’t had any observers, though she said she hoped people would show up to observe the absentee meeting this week.
“Democracy starts here in our office,” Huff said, and she wants the public to be able to see how it happens.
Logic and accuracy testing happens before every election. Elections records are required by state law to be retained for five years, Bowens said. Interested observers can check behind elections officials to make sure the testing was complete and observe future elections.
“We’ve learned since 2020 a lot of people do not know about the process, so anytime we get that opportunity to show that to the public, we take that opportunity,” Huff said.
Logic and accuracy testing is an early step in a long line of election security procedures that happen every North Carolina election.
The tests protect against honest mistakes in preparing for an election but are not security against deliberate tampering, according to Andrew Appel, election technology expert and professor of computer science at Princeton University.
“There is no protection against deliberate fraud afforded by logic and accuracy testing, but there is useful protection against accidental misconfiguration of the ballots,” Apple said.
“In North Carolina, your protection against hacks and fraud in the voting machine is … that you vote on paper ballots.”
Every county follows strict procedures for protecting voting equipment, including locking it in secure areas before transport to voting sites, using tamper-evident seals and recording chain of custody. The machines that count votes are also never connected to the internet and do not have the hardware to become connected to the internet, according to Gannon.
But even if every conceivable security measure failed, North Carolina officials would still know who legitimately won an election because votes are cast on paper ballots that cannot be hacked.
Every county elections board and the State Board of Elections then conduct a number of checks to make sure that only eligible voters cast ballots, that the ballots were counted correctly and that there were no technical errors in reporting the totals.
Election night results are unofficial because it takes time for county and state election officials to perform these checks and sign off on the results.
Some of these tests and concerns over security could become moot with advances in technology and support for elections as part of the country’s critical infrastructure, Coulter said.
The Open Source Election Technology Institute is participating in federally funded research into new types of computers that would solve a lot of the security concerns around voting machines, though the technology won’t be ready and put into place for at least another five years, Coulter said.
North Carolina is also moving to make other types of improvements, from updating county election servers to introducing new post-election risk-limiting audits.
The state piloted the audits in 2021 and is doing so again in 12 counties after the primary: Beaufort, Carteret, Craven, Franklin, Gaston, Granville, Harnett, Hoke, Johnston, Lenoir, Mecklenburg and Scotland.
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