This story originally published online at N.C. Policy Watch. 

A group of right-wing North Carolina House members calling themselves the Freedom Caucus want to crack open Durham County’s voting machines to check for vote manipulation despite no evidence of irregularities.

Members of the group announced their intentions at a news conference Thursday morning, and said they were picking a county at random. Durham is a heavily Democratic county and voted overwhelmingly for Joe Biden in a state that Donald Trump won.

“We started an investigation as to whether there were any foreign objects or modems or anything,” said Rep. Jeff McNeely, an Iredell Republican.

Later on the House floor, Rep. Zack Hawkins, a Durham Democrat, said members of the Freedom Caucus are not getting into the county’s voting machines.

“You are not welcome in Durham County,” he said.

In an email, Board of Elections director Derek Bowens said no one can open the machines.

“No one will be permitted to inspect voting equipment in Durham County as per statute and direction from the Executive Director of the State Board of Elections,” he wrote.

The Freedom Caucus for months has been questioning voting equipment. It had asked earlier this year for a random inspection that State Elections Director Karen Brinson Bell denied in a July letter.

“The State Board does not permit members of the public to access, manipulate, or disassemble certified voting equipment,” she wrote.  “Under Rule 08 NCAC 04 .0306, county boards of elections are responsible for the safekeeping, storage, maintenance, and care of voting equipment. Voting systems must be stored in a location such that ‘access is restricted to county board of elections staff and the system cannot be tampered with when not in use on Election Day.’”

Most counties use equipment manufactured by ES&S, and the company let House members look inside machines to show that they don’t have modems. Legislators said  Thursday that they want to look at machines that are in use.

“We want to randomly pick machines,” McNeely said Thursday. General Assembly police will help find evidence and secure the machines, he said.

Trump supporters stirred groundless suspicions about voting equipment after he lost the 2020 election. Trump backer Sidney Powell pushed a wacky conspiracy theory that somehow connected Dominion voting machines’ 2020 counts to long-dead Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.

Dominion Voting Systems sued Powell, Fox News, One America News, Rudy Giuliani, Newsmax, and  MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell for defamation.

Dominion machines are not used in North Carolina.

Durham is in the middle of an election season. Primaries for mayor and City Council seats just ended. One-stop early voting for the general election starts next week.

In a statement Thursday, Bell repeated that legislators cannot open voting machines.

“Unauthorized individuals who are not elections professionals have no authority to open and inspect voting equipment. Federal election security officials warn against any manipulation of voting systems, as that increases the risk of accidental or intentional damage, manipulation, or theft of assets and data. Any machine that is tampered with would have to be decertified and replaced.   Durham County is still canvassing from the October municipal election and voting has begun for the November elections. N.C.G.S. § 163-166.7(c)(1) requires voting systems to “remain secure throughout the period voting is being conducted.” Durham County must see that process through without disruption.   It is extremely disheartening when elected officials do not trust the process that elected them, nor the thousands of bipartisan election officials and poll workers who ensure North Carolina’s elections are fair and secure.   The State Board has received no credible evidence that the certified results are not accurate, and elected officials from both sides of the aisle have stated that the 2020 general election in North Carolina was conducted fairly. In North Carolina, post-election audits and recounts proved election results were accurate.   As documented in publications across the country, this type of stunt puts the safety of election officials at risk.

On Wednesday, a House committee approved House Bill 259, which would require all voting systems in the state be manufactured in the United States by a company with headquarters in this country.

Rep. Keith Kidwell, a Beaufort Republican and one of the bill’s sponsors, said the cost was immaterial and that voting machine companies would move manufacturing to the United States to comply with laws.

The bill aims to protect elections from “any undue influence from outside the United States,” Kidwell said.

Additionally, the bill would link jury duty notifications to voter rolls. Names of people called for jury duty who say they cannot serve because they are not citizens would be matched against voter rolls and marked for removal. Their names would be made public.

Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Guilford County Democrat, said at the committee meeting that she was worried about mistakes and harassment of people on the list.

In 2012, WRAL tried the potential voter-to-juror match in Wake County after far-right political activist erroneously claimed to find non-citizens on the voter rolls. WRAL reported that the method leads to false matches.

Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed a bill in 2019 that centered on the jury notification  section of House bill 259.

Rep. George Cleveland, a Jacksonville Republican and a proponent of the juror-voter match, shrugged his shoulders when asked about another potential Cooper veto.

“I can honestly say I have no idea what he’s going to do,” Cleveland said.

Caroline Fry of Democracy North Carolina told the committee that the bill was an attack on state voters and contributes to election misinformation.

“This bill’s rationale is rooted in disproven claims that North Carolina’s voting rolls are full of undetected non-citizens,” she said. “It was done to get us talking, once again, about President Trump’s ‘big lie’ that the 2020 election was stolen.

“This bill is a dog whistle to white Americans that immigrants—specifically Black and Brown immigrants—are destroying our democracy.”

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