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N.C. Elections Might Face a Cybersecurity, Staff Problem

North Carolina's elections director told state congressmen that the state's elections system needs better security and enough staff to make improvements. The House's budget, however, didn't address these concerns.

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(TNS) — House budget writers ignored the pleas of the state's election director to pay for election security in the latest proposal of the state's budget.

N.C. Board of Elections Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell requested that the N.C. House authorize the use of $2.8 million from the 2020 allotment of the federal Help America Vote Act funding.

Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) as a means to improve problems found during the 2000 election. The program provided funding for states to create programs and rules for provisional voting, voting information, updating and upgrading voting equipment, statewide voter registration databases, voter identification procedures and administrative complaint procedures, according to the U.S. Elections Assistance Commission.

Federal funds were distributed in 2018 and 2020 to help implement these procedures.

According to 2020 Session Law, any of the $11.7 million from the 2020 HAVA unspent by June 30, 2021, was not to be spent until the General Assembly allocated it.

Bell told lawmakers, in a letter obtained by The News & Observer, that that leaves $2.8 million without allocation and that money would be used to pay for 30 full-time employees focused on elections security.

"At a time when voters are demanding election security, not authorizing the State Board of Elections to use existing federal funding could result in the termination of about 30 agency employees," Bell said. "This would derail ongoing projects to improve the state's election management system and further fortify our elections systems against attackers."

30 ELECTION SECURITY POSITIONS IN QUESTION


The Senate's version of the budget specified that those 30 positions needed to be "phased out" with 15 positions being eliminated by June 30, 2022, and the other 15 by June 30, 2023.

The House walked that back saying that the 30 positions could be retained with the 2018 allocation.

Prior to the House budget being released, Bell told the co-chairs of the N.C. House Committee on Appropriations for General Government that if the money wasn't authorized in this budget, the elections board would run out of funding from the 2018 allocation before the end of the biennium.

Bell added that this was not funding that the House needed to come up with, but is already there and only needs allocation.

She told the chairs she needs money for cybersecurity consultants, for security improvements on the county level, to implement data sharing and a list maintenance program to identify ineligible voters from other states, to promote voter registration, to continue mitigation of county servers to a cloud-based environment and to provide blind voters with accessible ballots required under a court order.

"The work funded by these federal dollars will help the state's elections and government leaders reach our shared goal of ensuring voter confidence," Bell said. "It is important to note that authorizing the State Board to use these funds will not cost the state any additional money and does not affect the 2021-2022 state budget at all."

STATE BOARD OF ELECTIONS AND N.C. GENERAL ASSEMBLY AT ODDS


Several Democrats, who said they were left out of the budget-writing process, told Republicans that the 2020 allotment was not allocated in the budget during their debate prior to the bill's second reading.

The State Board of Elections and the N.C. General Assembly have been at odds this biennium after N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein and the elections board agreed to a court settlement that extended the number of days the board could accept mailed-in ballots with the correct postmark.

Bell had asked for the extension from the General Assembly earlier in 2020 out of concern regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of people staying home and the impact on the U.S. Postal System.

Lawmakers denied that request but could not get a judge to agree that the settlement was unacceptable.

In response, the budgets take away the State Board of Elections ability to make settlement agreements on its own when the General Assembly is out of session.

It also includes policy that would require the House speaker and Senate leader to sign off on settlement agreements either involving the General Assembly or where the political leaders have signed on as intervenors on behalf of the General Assembly.

©2021 The News & Observer, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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