Northwestern North Carolina County on the Virginia border is probably best known as the home of Mount Airy, the birthplace of Andy Griffith and the inspiration for Mayberry in his eponymous 1960s television show.
This year, Surry County has been a focal point for prominent election deniers falsely claiming the votes were rigged to win President Joe Biden in 2020.
The district devoted almost an entire meeting to the poll deniers in May, with David Clements, a former assistant professor at New Mexico State University who travels the country preaching on fraud. Clements, who lost his university job last year for refusing to wear a mask in class, urged Surry to count ballots by hand.
At the end of the meeting, Surry Chief Executive Bill Goins told the crowd that the commissioners would consider residents’ recommendations, but concerns about fraud should go to local and state election officials. Someone in the crowd shouted “Pontius Pilate”.
Goins could not be reached by phone this week.
The state elections agency operates a feature called “Mythbuster Mondays” on its website and social media accounts, which addressed the issue of electronic manipulation back in April.
“Voting equipment in North Carolina does not contain modem chips, and state law prohibits voting machines from being wirelessly connected to other devices,” reads this mysterious response.
That didn’t end the rumors.
David H. Diamont, a former member of the Surry State House, said the search for voter fraud reflects a deep distrust of the government.
“They just don’t trust the government anymore,” Diamont said in an interview this week. “It’s an illness. Its scary. It’s so different from when I was in politics.”
Most voters in North Carolina mark ballots that feed into tabs. With former President Donald Trump’s lies about widespread voter fraud came claims of tab manipulation over internet connections. These beliefs have prevailed even in places like Surry, where Trump received 75 percent of the vote.
Dominion Voting Systems is suing former Trump attorney Sidney Powell for her wild claims about his machines. In a motion to dismiss the lawsuit last year, Powell’s attorneys wrote that “no reasonable person would conclude that the testimonies were truly allegations of fact.”
No county in North Carolina uses Dominion devices, but Republicans have called for a look inside the machines used at polling stations to look for modems or chips.
In the districts, calls for the scrapping of hand-counting machines are intertwined with distrust of voting machines.
Surry County GOP chairman Keith Senter told Surry’s director of elections she would lose her job or cut her salary after rejecting demands for access to voting machines, Reuters reported.
Senter has not returned calls this week, but he regularly attends “open forums” portions of commission meetings.
“Were the machines in Surry County connected to the internet or do they have cellular or internet capability?” he asked in April, citing the names of well-known national election deniers, including ardent Trump supporter My Pillow Guy Mike Lindell.
“The only way you know is through forensic analysis of the machines,” Senter said.
Senter appeared at commissioners’ meetings throughout the summer to rant about elections.
Among the pages on the State Board of Elections’ website on cybersecurity, voting security and misinformation is a page on voting machine security that attempts to dispel rumors about machines embedded in modems. It includes a statement from Trump himself, released ahead of a trip to North Carolina last summer, praising his victory in the state “with no fraudulent outcome.”
Those who refuse to vote have champions in the state parliament.
Members of the far-right Freedom Caucus in the North Carolina House announced at a press conference last October that they intended to probe Durham County voting machines for devices that would allow internet connections. That investigation did not take place after the director of the state board of elections said unauthorized persons cannot have access to voting machines.
Leading up to October, correspondence between the office of Rep. Keith Kidwell (R—79th District), chair of the Freedom Caucus, and the Summer 2021 Board of Elections shows that caucus members had attempted to find an opportunity to become active machines months before they announced they were going to Durham. Election Committee officials had met with caucus members about election procedures and tried to convince them that none of the machines used in North Carolina could access the Internet.
“There are no mechanisms for sending or receiving data to or from a modem on certified voting machines,” Electoral Board spokesman Patrick Gannon said in a June 8, 2021 email to Kidwell in response to a question about modem capabilities.
“And state law prohibits any county from using a modem connection in voting machines,” Gannon added.
The correspondence was obtained through a public records request.
A “Trusted Elections” tour, scheduled to stop in each of the state’s 14 congressional districts, takes time at each 90-minute city hall to explain how voting machines work.
In addition to computer experts, the meetings are attended by district returning officers, attorneys for Democratic and Republican elections, and Democratic and Republican members of the district election committees. The Carter Center, an Atlanta-based nonprofit, is sponsoring the tour. Bob Orr, a former Republican NC Supreme Court Justice, and former Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts are leading the effort.
On August 31, Brad Reaves, a computer systems privacy expert at NC State University, told the audience at the Johnston County Courthouse that none of the state’s voting machines can be hacked because they are never connected to a network.
Mitch Kokai, senior policy analyst at the John Locke Foundation, moderated the session and provided panellists with questions submitted by the audience. The local election officials got the challengers.
Among the questions: Why can’t a county count by hand when that’s what the municipality wants to do?
Johnston County Elections Committee Chairman Gordon Woodruff said there were far too many ballots to count by hand. In 2020, approximately 111,000 people voted in Johnston County.
Recent recounts have found errors of one or two votes, a tiny fraction of 1 percent, he said. And the hand-eye audits that the state requires for select counties confirm the accuracy of the machines, he said.
“The machines are so good, it’s really not a big problem,” Woodruff said.
Nonetheless, interest in hand counting is spreading. It has become an issue for about half a dozen people who have regularly attended Surry commissioners’ meetings this summer to complain about elections.
A resident told Surry Commissioners that school children should be given the task of counting ballots as part of civics classes from sixth grade onwards.
In an interview this week, Orr said election officials appreciated the opportunity to talk about their work. Attendees aren’t there to challenge people’s beliefs, he said, but to let the audience hear from the locals running the polls how it all works.
Some of the same questions are asked at every stop, Orr said. He believes members of groups contesting the election go to city halls to speak to them.
The only real “vocal pushback” so far has come in New Bern, where video replaced a live poll security expert. People in the audience called it “propaganda” and “lies,” Orr said.
“It’s a lack of information or understanding or trust in the technology,” Orr said. “I don’t know what you’re doing about it, but we’re trying.”
This story was originally published online at NC Policy Watch. This story is part of a project called Democracy Day, in which newsrooms across the country are raising awareness of threats to democracy.
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