Legislators seek background checks, fingerprinting for election workers

Legislators seek background checks, fingerprinting for election workers

[Note: This story has been updated.] North Carolina election employees could soon be facing stricter scrutiny.

House members rolled out a bill Tuesday night requiring all current and prospective permanent and temporary employees of boards of elections, including the State Board, to undergo criminal background checks and fingerprinting.

A conviction of any number of a broad array of crimes – including prostitution, public intoxication and driving while impaired – would constitute just cause for not selecting someone for employment or to dismiss them from current employment.

The bill would also require that all county boards of elections employees’ personnel records be available to the State Board – a move the Board says is necessary for its supervision of elections.

The proposals are not new – the State Board made several security-related recommendations to lawmakers in February. But county boards are worried about logistics, cost and uniformity.

Josh Lawson, General Counsel for the State Board, said background checks and fingerprinting would be required of all State Board employees but at the county level, they would only be required of board members, those with “access to the statewide computerized voter registration system” (known as SEIMS) and others in “sensitive positions as designated by the State Board.”

Those sensitive positions have not yet been designated, giving rise to concerns that background checks and fingerprinting could be extended to all regular poll workers. However, Lawson stated specifically in an email that the bill currently did not require that.

He added that the largest county board has no more than 30 staff members who would be subjected to the background checks.

Derek Bowens, Durham County Board of Elections Director said he believes security measures are important, but that the means by which they’re done is challenging

“It opens up a tough can of worms,” he said.

Durham County already requires a background check for temporary office workers and one-stop early voting workers but not election precinct workers. Bowens said they have up to 600 people who work elections.

“It is a concern to think that we could have to go back retro and do a background check of these people,” he said.

The results of the background check process used in Durham takes anywhere from 48 hours to a week, he said.

Wake County background checks can take up to two weeks, according to Gary Sims, Wake County Board of Elections Director. He expressed similar concerns and said the extra step of fingerprinting could create a recruiting challenge.

It’s already difficult to find good people to work elections and most of the civic-minded individuals who are currently drawn to the position are either retired or semi-retired. Sims said they may not want to jump through the extra hoops.

“It makes me a little nervous,” he said, adding that not even Wake County government employees are fingerprinted unless they’re in law enforcement.

Bowens and Sims also expressed budget concerns with having to incur the costs of background checks and fingerprinting. Both had read the proposed bill but said it wasn’t clear who was responsible for paying for those services.

Lawson said the background checks would be conducted by the Department of Public Safety. Counties would be responsible for the cost of the checks for their staffs and the State Board would pay for its employee background checks. The State Board would establish an overall process.

Background checks through the State Bureau of Investigation cost $14 for citizens who are required by their potential employers to submit a background check. A person can only request a background check on themselves through North Carolina’s Right to Review, according to the bureau.

The state courts system has a list of companies that use its database to search for criminal records. That fee varies from company to company.

The FBI does a fingerprint background check for $18.

Bowens said Durham County’s response to the costs will probably be “you guys need to budget for this.” He, Sims and Charlie Collicutt, Guilford County Board of Elections Director, shared in fiscal concerns over the bill.

Sims emphasized that it was not his job to have an opinion on legislation but that he did have to look at the impact to make sure things were done the right way.

“This one, there are some things that would be nice to have clarity,” he said.

Collicutt said background checks take time and require additional effort and flexibility from his staff. The Guilford board is a 15-person office that swells to about 40 during a presidential election. They have 500-600 early voting workers and employ about 1,400 people on Election Day.

He said the logistics still need to be worked out but that the bill may hurt county boards in recruitment and retention if poll workers and early voting workers are ultimately affected.

Lawson said that in the past eight months, two election staffers in different counties pleaded guilty to crimes committed using their access to state elections systems – one in Durham and one in Granville.

“Elections and cybersecurity best practices increasingly call for heightened review of employees who access sensitive systems,” he said.

He said that individuals with access to SEIMS can view, alter or remove voter records that include social security, driver license, signature and date of birth information, and they are ultimately able to access servers that affect statewide elections management systems, including public election results.

State Board Director Kim Westbrook Strach made the security recommendations to lawmakers after meeting with other election chiefs from across the country in Washington for a series of classified and unclassified briefings on election security. The current State Board was not appointed when she made the recommendations.

Strach wrote an op-ed about her recommendations in February.

“Securing the vote and maintaining public confidence in elections remain a critical challenge for North Carolina, which has looked to our agency for more than a century to steward the democratic process,” she wrote.

There is no evidence to suggest North Carolina’s voting systems were targeted by foreign adversaries, according to Strach, but she said “the threat is real and the goal is to erode trust in elections and in each other.”

The nonprofit watchdog group Democracy North Carolina wrote a letter to Strach in response to her op-ed in which it suggested some additions to her recommendations so that voter access would not be harmed.

The organization agreed with several security points and expressed concerns with some points – one being the required background checks.

“While we acknowledge the sensitivity of systems accessed by election workers, we are concerned that background checks are an overly broad response to the potential misuse of election data – and could lead to a false sense of security among election officials,” the letter states. “We believe that a more tailored solution would be a better safeguard and also avoid the reflexive reliance on background checks, which often prohibit individuals with unrelated criminal records from finding the gainful employment required for rehabilitation.”

The letter also pointed out that one of the election staffers Lawson refers to as an impetus for the need for heightened security had no prior criminal record and the other had only one conviction related to vehicle registration.

One way the group suggests doing that is by limiting the ability of temporary and administrative workers to modify election data in SEIMS. They also recommend clarifying language to exclude regular poll workers with this phrase: “Shall not mean a precinct official as defined in G.S. 163A-815(b).

One other concern Bowens raised had to do with the uniformity of how criminal convictions would be applied to hiring and firing practices. The bill currently leaves discretion with county directors.

“You’ll have 100 different county boards doing 100 different things,” he said, adding that some rigidity was better than none when dealing with criminal records. “Uniformity is good.”

He encouraged lawmakers to consider the practicality, uniformity and fiscal resources of the bill.

Each county board director who spoke to Policy Watch for this article said that, ultimately, they would do what lawmakers directed them to. Collicutt added that the bill doesn’t create impossible tasks, just difficult ones.

Cleveland County Board of Elections Director, Clifton Philbeck, pointed out the extra step background checks would create for staff but said he had no opinion about the legislation. Cleveland County is House Speaker Tim Moore’s district.

“If it happens, it happens; we’ll make sure it gets done,” Philbeck said.

Lawmakers were supposed to consider the bill during a committee meeting Thursday but it was canceled at the last minute.