Spreading the Word

Election officials double down on efforts to counter voting misinformation as Nov. 8 election draws near

As the Nov. 8 general election draws near, Dominion Voting Systems’ lawsuits against Fox Corporation, Newsmax Media Inc., One America News Network and various individuals for their roles in advancing voting conspiracies in the wake of the 2020 presidential election continue to wind their way through the justice system.

“Lies and misinformation have severely damaged our company and diminished the credibility of US elections, subjecting hardworking public officials and Dominion employees to harassment and death threats,” a statement on Dominion’s website reads. “Dominion is taking steps to right these wrongs through our judicial system.”

State officials have also had to rely on the judicial system to address mistrust in the voting system. After the Otero County Commission last spring refused to certify its primary election results citing concerns about the Dominion Voting Systems, Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver went to court to compel them to do so (Indeed, under court order, the commission eventually voted 2-1 to certify the results; former County Commissioner Couy Griffin, who voted against doing so, was removed from office last month for his role in the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection).

Now, with early voting underway, election officials are taking numerous measures to explain New Mexico’s voting processes and debunk misinformation.

On Oct. 19, Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, state Elections Director Mandy Vigil and a Dominion employee demonstrated the Dominion voting machines in action and walked reporters through the various security measures—keys, passwords, and multi-factor authentication, to name a few—required to operate the machines.

(The Secretary of State’s Office asked the media not to identify the Dominion employee “because of personal safety concerns regarding Dominion employees,” SOS Communications Director Alex Curtas tells SFR via email. “Dominion reps have been subjected to threats and harassment stemming from the lies about the 2020 election and subsequent elections. So we’re just trying to keep everyone safe.”)

To start, the state’s election officials follow federal and state law to certify its voting machines. The last testing and certification process took place in 2021, via state statute, and is executed by a bipartisan Voting System Certification Committee (read its 2021 report here). All voting systems approved by the federal Election Assistance Commission are currently certified to standards known as the Voluntary Voting System Guidelines (a 2.0 version of those guidelines has been approved by the EAC but not yet implemented anywhere pending laboratory testing).

The state manages the election system—the voter rolls and ballots, Vigil said. “All of the counties input all of the data to create their polling sites, to create the candidates, the districts, the precincts, all of that is set up in a system that is managed by our office. That data is then exported out to our Dominion partners…and they cannot create data outside of that. So they don’t create the system; they don’t create the election: We do.” All that information is programmed onto two cards—for back-up—which are assigned to specific machines for specific locations.

One point of disinformation, Toulouse Oliver says, is the idea that the voting machines connect to the Internet, making them vulnerable to hacking. They are not, officials say, because the state uses “air-gapped counting machines,” meaning its vote tabulators, by law and process, can’t be joined to either a computer network or the Internet. “The physical separation of systems ensured by air-gapping makes it much more difficult for any bad actor to try and penetrate those systems,” the office’s “Rumor Vs. Reality” website notes.

Additional safeguards include the use of paper ballots and a post-election canvas and audit of votes at both the county and state level. Vigil and the Dominion rep demonstrated how the machines handle, for instance, blank ballots (a warning message that allows the voter to try again); over-voting (again, a warning); an emergency bin that stores ballots in the case of a power failure; and an end-of-election tape—essentially a receipt—that reports on the election results from each machine.

Last week, Toulouse Oliver and Attorney General Hector Balderas released a voter information advisory that outlined the state and federal laws against election interference and voter intimidation. Leading up to and on election day, Toulouse Oliver said her office will have a “virtual situation room” connecting election officials with local, state and federal law enforcement. “If a public safety issue were to arise, or an obstruction of the polling place issue were to arise, we have a very quick…rapid response system in place to be able to deal with those issues,” she said.

Toulouse Oliver—who has also received threats for her role in countering election misinformation—says spreading the word about how the voting machines work and why they are secure is one way in which her office is trying to counter disinformation campaigns. The office also “rapidly responds” to misinformation on social media sites, working directly with the platforms to remove inaccurate information.

“The reality at the end of the day, though, is…this is a long term effort that needs to happen, sort of wholesale improvement of civic education and engagement on how our systems work,” she said. People casting doubt on the voting systems, she noted, “are a small group, but they have a very loud megaphone. So we need to try to combine forces so that our megaphone is just as loud, if not louder.”

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