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On Elections, a Three Part Series: Part Two: Mechanics and Safety

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Troy Chavez
May 3, 2024

My previous article illustrated the reasons why we vote and its importance for democratic proliferation. This article is going to expand on that, but on a more technical level. Elections have always been an interest, and at times, an occupation of mine. However, my fascination with elections management escalated during the 2022 midterm election, whereby, I was a canvasser.

What really opened my eyes was how much misinformation floated around that time. People on the right were still reeling from Trump’s loss and delved headfirst into conspiracies and misinformed “experts.” My eyes opened wider while at a Golden Corall for an event when I witnessed an exchange between a man “hunting” for voter fraud and an attendee present.

“We need to get rid of these machines!” bellowed a woman in the audience, beckoning the question: “Why don’t we go back to paper ballots?!” Followed by rip-roaring applause.

A man in the audience, red as a Carolina Reaper, agreed vehemently, leapt up and said, “We can’t trust these machines! We need paper ballots!”

Not only was this meeting a farce, but their anger also baffled me. I sat there and thought to myself, no one knows how elections operate. They’re afraid of what they don’t understand.

In 2022, prior to my interview with Tim Tsujii, Forsyth County, NC, Director of Elections, he dealt with similar sour and ill-informed sentiments.

Here is an excerpt on the issue from the Winston-Salem Journal (2022), by Wes Young GOP protest over voting machine shutdown dismissed by Forsyth election board (journalnow.com):

“What happened on election night is that poll workers in all 108 county precincts discovered when they closed the polling places that they could not shut down their voting tabulators to deliver the results. The workers did not have a code the machines were requiring them to enter.

“The workers eventually got an administrative code to shut down their machines, but the protest asserted that passing out the code created a security breach that could have allowed unauthorized access to the results.”

Tsujii would go on to plug holes in the theories presented to the Board of Elections. He said:

  • the tabulators would have shown activity if tampered with;
  • no additional votes were scanned after closing;
  • one of the protesters was a precinct official that signed off saying nothing nefarious occurred;
  • and the administration was instituted with bipartisan officials overseeing the election.

All t’s were crossed, and all i’s were dotted. Although, this did not stop the protesters from dredging forward void of any hard evidence. This stunt halted the swearing-in of locally elected officials.

In my interview, conducted in March (2024), Mr. Tsujii gave me an in-depth tour of their facilities. After roaming the county building, strapped with security cameras, guards and elevators only accessible for those with codes, it felt more like a bank than an elections office. The door where the data is stored, only a handful of people physically have access, and the code to get in changes after each election cycle. Additionally, to get into the room where the board meets, only two keys are given to the Director and Deputy Director. Lastly, what they call the “Unity Room,” named after the prior software used for voting machines, is under the same lock & key. This is where the data is stored. The computer itself, holding the voter data, is not connected to the internet, and is localized and accessible only through file transfer.

However, voter registration databases “are networked but they are behind two firewall protections: the county firewall and the state firewall,” Tsujii said. “In case anyone tries to send ransomware in the county, we have a back up server.”

“But when it comes to the actual results and the votes, it is all uploaded to a system [without internet access], which is only connected to the outlet for power.”

Moreover, online results go through a process called “air-gapping.” Meaning, they have hundreds of blank USB sticks “and copy results and import it to the network computer and post results to the elections website…. But rather than reuse that stick, because it touched the network server, we get another blank stick and copy any new data and reimport it. That is air-gapping.”

Lastly, the sticks they use are each worth $100 because they have special encryption codes to reduce tampering with voter results. If you try to put one of those sticks into a regular desktop, “you’ll get an error message and can only be accessed” by designated election officials. “You need to have a specific encryption key.”

Pertaining to the machines, they are held in a basement warehouse under the county building where one will need key codes that change every election, too. Each voting machine is rigorously tested, and even gets “flamethrower” tested before it can be deployed and approved for use. And after the voting machines are finished, their results are transferred via bins and sealed.

“People don’t know about that. We are maintaining the chain of custody from start to finish,” he said. “We have our staff members following the delivery truck to make sure it gets to the proper polling place.” Every component is accounted for and logged with unique seal numbers checked by every Chief Judge. “And so, when they go to set up, they’re all doing this together, in a bipartisan fashion and have to sign off” altogether.

When asked about whether he would like to see any changes to the system, Tsujii replied, “Specifically to North Carolina, I would not make any changes.” Since 2013 there has been a constant flux of changes to election law. “That has been more difficult to deal with than having to deal with the misinformation that’s been spreading.” Ships must sail through rough waters, but to constantly slosh and turn and nearly tip over—every voyage—is devastatingly treacherous.

Not all election offices are built like Forsyth’s. The local nature of our government can be a dual edged sword. But according to Tsujii, this is just another bezel of security. One would need to have a sprawling and intense operation to navigate all 50 states’ election apparatuses to commit voter fraud. This happened in 2022 where a man used his son’s information to double vote. He was swiftly picked up by Tsujii’s team and promptly charged. The risks don’t match the reward. Only well-equipped foreign adversaries or well-funded domestic terrorists come close to accomplishing fraud, but even then, they’d be up against a legion of bulwarks. My next and final article will be looking at elections administration for this November. What is at stake? And are election officials prepared? Also, there was much covered in my interview with Mr. Tsujii. To hear it all, you can go to my Substack, The Centrist, here Interview with Tim Tsujii, Forsyth County, NC Elections Director (substack.com)

AuthorTroy Chavez, M.P.A. is a PhD candidate at Liberty University with a masters in public administration and works in government doing community relations. He can be reached at [email protected].

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