Josh Lawson spent five years working with the N.C. Board of Elections, leaving his position as general counsel in May following the board’s replacement of executive director Kim Westbrook Strach.
“Trying to defend the democratic process was the job of a lifetime,” he says.
Now he’s continuing the fight as a private citizen, speaking out on the threats our state and the nation face from foreign influences who want to subvert our system.
And there’s reason to be concerned.
The report by special counsel Robert Mueller on Russia’s attempts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election sent shock waves across the country as we prepare for another vote next year. Among the revelations: Hackers successfully installed malware on the network of a company that provides voter registration technology.
That caused a scramble in North Carolina as officials tried to figure out whether election systems in Durham County were the victims of that cyberattack, and if that caused significant problems checking in voters.
Lawson says the investigation into the Durham problems is continuing. In the meantime, North Carolina has become – along with Florida – among the top states for the focus of election security and has developed a strong relationship with the Department of Homeland Security to combat the threats.
“We’re well in advance of many of our fellow states,” he says.
Last month, the House has passed a sweeping elections security bill. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he’s not interested in such legislation, arguing the decisions should be left to the states.
Lawson says it’s important to understand the limits of federalism when it comes to elections.
“But I would say, look, let the states tell you that we’re concerned about you taking over too much. Don’t decide for us,” he says. “Because I can tell you that many of the folks that serve with all the good intentions in the world in state elections boards do not have the type of technical sophistication necessary to overcome the types of threats we face. And that threat is always changing.”
North Carolina has become an important swing state in national elections and often ends up with close races. While there’s no evidence that votes can be switched through cyberattacks, there’s a real fear that they can sow confusion, leading voters to question the integrity vote.
“It’s not just whether they’re secure, it’s whether they’re perceived to be secure,” he says.
And the best way to safeguard the vote?
“I believe paper ballots are the way to go,” he says. Preferably, he says, the paper ballots where the voter fills in a bubble, like so many standardized tests use.
One of the problems with the move to computerized systems has been that the companies that provide the technology have not been transparent with state officials about how they work. That means the people who run the elections don’t get a clear picture of what vulnerabilities those systems may have.
“The struggle has been real, and not just for our state,” he says.
Lawson says the technology has been poorly regulated but he sees a lack of political will at the federal level to tighten the rules.
The Supreme Court ruled that federal courts are not the place to determine whether the state’s political maps are gerrymandered along partisan lines. Partisan gerrymandering is when the party in control drawing boundaries that are likely to give them an advantage on Election Day. The decision sparked reactions ranging from ‘this is status quo, the court has never ruled on partisan gerrymandering’ to ‘this is a doomsday scenario for voting rights.’
The decision essentially lets states handle the matter.
“I think you could see the courts taking that really seriously here,” he says. “I think it’s going to be an interesting to watch. Because North Carolina has been at the forefront of leading – sometimes not in a good way – election law development throughout the country.”