Durham County elections officials blame human error, not hacking, for 2016 delays

This story has been updated with new information from the Durham County Board of Elections regarding the number of laptops sent to the Department of Homeland Security for examination.

Elections officials in Durham County said they remain confident that user error, not Russian hackers, caused computer malfunctions at some polling places on Election Day 2016.

The elections office sent 24 laptops to the Department of Homeland Security in early June for analysis after new information surfaced about the company that provided the software for them, Elections Director Derek Bowens told the Durham County Board of Elections Thursday.

As Durham County gears up for municipal elections this fall, Bowens said some computers used during the 2016 election may not have been properly updated with the latest software from VR Systems, which could have caused malfunctions.

The software runs an electronic poll book, or a database of voters eligible to cast ballots. Hacking the poll books could not alter vote totals, he said, but it could create delays at the polls if voter identification discrepancies occurred, he said.

That’s what happened in 2016 after voters at some Durham poll sites reported they were told they already cast ballots when they had not.

The laptops gained renewed attention after former special counsel Robert Mueller issued his report in April on Russian interference in the 2016 election. Durham and North Carolina are not mentioned specifically in Mueller’s report, according to previous News & Observer reports.

The software on the computers was provided by Florida-based VR Systems, a company reported to be the target of a Russian interference campaign. The company, which provided software for a half-dozen states, has denied being hacked, multiple news outlets have reported.

Bowens said Thursday that Durham County no longer uses the VR Systems software. The county switched to a poll book system run by the state, he said.

“That was one of the first things I wanted to do,” said Bowens, who became director in 2017 shortly after the 2016 election.

There haven’t been similar delays on subsequent election days, he said. Bowens said his department has increased security efforts with full encryption of data and required cybersecurity training for employees and elections workers.

Chairman Philip Lehman said it is unlikely evidence of hacking would be found by federal investigators.

“There is a big difference between staff mistakes and Russian hacking,” he said. “There is no linkage between us and what happened in Florida.”

Thursday’s meeting in Durham came the same day as state elections officials postponed a decision on certifying new voting machines. They said there is uncertainty over who owns the three companies seeking to sell the state voting machines.

Delays on Election Day

Bowens said 24 laptop computers — out of about 300 used in the 2016 election — were used in the polls where delays occurred. They were pulled for analysis when questions arose about the conduct of the 2016 election, he said.

Those computers were sent to the North Carolina State Board of Elections, which was investigating election irregularities.

Bowens said the state board examined the computers but was told a forensic check of the laptops was not conducted.

The state board received information gathered by Durham County elections investigators but did not make a determination that hacking caused the malfunctions, he said.

The state’s preliminary investigation into the e-pollbook issues determined that human error was to blame, The News & Observer previously reported.

“Neither the State Board nor the Durham County Board of Elections has any evidence that outside interference played a role in the e-pollbook issues,” said Pat Gannon, a spokesman for the state elections board, in an email earlier this month. “However, the State Board does not have the technical expertise to forensically examine the laptops to definitively rule that out as a cause.”

The board of elections returned the laptops to the county about two months ago, and they were stored separately, he said. They were not used during elections in 2017 and 2018, he said.

DHS spokeswoman Sara Sendek said analyzing the Durham laptops “may help to provide a better understanding of previous issues and help to secure the 2020 elections,” according to an N&O report.

The Durham County Board of Elections will be gearing up for the next round of elections in the fall. Candidate filing is July 5-19 for October’s Durham municipal elections — the Durham City Council and mayor. If a runoff is required, it will take place in November.

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Joe Johnson is a reporter covering breaking stories for The News & Observer. He most recently covered towns in western Wake County and Chatham County. Before that, he covered high school sports for The Herald-Sun.