NAACP president and others urge Roy Cooper to fire NC elections chief

Election security advocates and the head of the North Carolina NAACP want a new leader at the N.C. Board of Elections.

In a letter sent to Gov. Roy Cooper Monday, they asked the Democratic governor to demand the resignation of Damon Circosta, the election board’s chairman whom Cooper appointed to the job earlier this summer following a scandal involving the previous chairman, Bob Cordle.

They say the elections board has not done enough to focus on cyber security in the face of foreign interference in elections. They also oppose the board’s recent decision to allow counties to use — instead of hand-marked paper ballots — a type of electronic voting machine, which they say runs on outdated software and could be more susceptible to hackers.

“We respectfully urge you to request the immediate resignation (of Circosta) from the State Board of Elections and to quickly appoint a replacement member committed to ensuring North Carolina’s elections are a model of security for the nation, providing that all votes are recorded and counted transparently, accessibly, auditably and securely for all voters,” the letter said.

Cooper, however, stands by Circosta and the elections board as a whole.

“The security of our elections is the number one priority of the State Board of Elections,” Cooper spokesman Ford Porter said. “This includes ballot and voting machine security, ensuring against voter intimidation and discrimination in all forms, freedom from long lines, and making sure that voting is as easy and hassle free as possible. The Governor believes the board is focused on these concerns.”

The elections board has both a full-time professional staff and a part-time political leadership who oversees the staff, guiding policy and other major decisions. Cooper spent the first half of his term in office fighting a legal battle with the Republican-led General Assembly over control of the political side of the elections board, finally winning that fight in late 2018 and regaining Democrats’ majority on the board.

As chairman, Circosta is the leader of the five-person board. Outside that role he is the executive director of the AJ Fletcher Foundation, a local nonprofit, and also teaches at Duke University. Previously, he led the North Carolina Center for Voter Education.

“I think everybody — the advocates, the board of elections, all of us — have the same goal,” Circosta said in an interview Tuesday. “And that is to make sure our voting equipment is secure.”

The machines the board approved replace older models that were phased out under a new state election-security law.

Details of the complaint

In response to the activists’ letter calling for Circosta’s resignation, Board of Elections spokesman Pat Gannon questioned the accuracy of some of their claims. For instance, he said, the type of electronic voting machines the activists oppose are actually required by federal law to be available to at least some voters, “to ensure voters with disabilities, who may not be able to mark a paper ballot, may cast ballots privately and independently.”

There’s no requirement for the counties to make such machines the only way for all voters to cast ballots, however, and that is part of what has the activists concerned. They contend that the ballots produced by such machines can’t be audited as well as hand-marked paper ballots, to determine if hackers influenced an election.

“The stark truth is that the foreign nation states and other bad actors targeting our elections are highly motivated and possess significant financial and technical resources able to disrupt or manipulate our election infrastructure,” the letter says. “We cannot ignore or minimize the magnitude of this threat.”

The letter was signed by the Rev. Anthony Spearman, who is the president of the statewide NAACP and is also a member of the Guilford County Board of Elections. It’s also signed by several high-profile activists in election security circles.

Marilyn Marks, who is behind a lawsuit against Georgia over that state’s voting machines and is considering a similar lawsuit against North Carolina, signed it. So did Lynn Bernstein, a Wake County resident who has emerged as one of most vocal local proponents of hand-marked paper ballots, and Susan Greenhalgh, vice president of the California-based National Election Defense Coalition.

Most counties in North Carolina give hand-marked paper ballots to most voters, which the activists prefer. But some plan to continue using only electronic voting in 2020 — including Mecklenburg County, the state’s largest county.

Circosta said the board has done its due diligence and would not have certified any voting machines that didn’t pass security tests. However, he said he has nothing against activists raising their concerns.

“I always appreciate advocates bringing these issues to our attention,” Circosta said.

With all the rules about pre-election testing, security during elections, and then audits after elections, he said, “there is a remarkable amount of work that goes into making sure that when people go to the polls their choices are registered and secured.”

The letter also mentions the election fraud investigation that derailed 2018’s 9th District congressional race between Mark Harris and Dan McCready, and made national headlines, as another mark against the election board’s trustworthiness with voters.

But Gannon said it was the state elections board that caught that fraud in the first place, and the fact that the scandal forced the election to be re-done should be seen as a win for the ability of the state board to ensure fair elections.

“That is an example of how much we take election security and integrity seriously, and should be seen as a success story, not a black mark for this agency,” Gannon said.

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Will Doran reports on North Carolina politics, with a focus on state employees and agencies. In 2016 he started The News & Observer’s fact-checking partnership, PolitiFact NC, and before that he reported on local governments around the Triangle. Contact him at wdoran@newsobserver.com or (919) 836-2858.