Wednesday, January 26, 2022

New maps, cybersecurity, short lines: Election Day in New Hanover County

New Hanover County Board of Elections Director Rae Hunter-Havens fires up voting machines on Election Day used at early voting locations in New Hanover County. Until the machines were inspected at around 2 p.m. Tuesday, the vote totals within them were unknown. Results will become public shortly after 8:00 p.m. Tuesday. (Port City Daily photo/Preston Lennon)
New Hanover County Board of Elections Director Rae Hunter-Havens fires up voting machines on Election Day used at early voting locations in New Hanover County. Until the machines were inspected at around 2 p.m. Tuesday, the vote totals within them were unknown. Results will become public shortly after 8:00 p.m. Tuesday. (Port City Daily photo/Preston Lennon)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Throughout New Hanover County, poll workers, party leaders and candidates are all saying the same thing: Election Day turnout has been quiet and low-key, marked by short lines at various polling locations. 

The muted crowds have been largely attributed to the staggering numbers of early votes cast in recent weeks, though some operatives on the ground expect a surge in voters after 6 p.m. By the morning of Nov. 3, the number of ballots cast in New Hanover County this election cycle had surpassed the total number of ballots cast in the 2016 general election — around 112,000. 

Related: Elections officials argue over tiny number of erroneous ballots on Election Day eve

Polls in the county will be open until 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. Statewide results normally would start trickling out to the public at that time; however, because of late starts at four different polling stations in other N.C. counties, results this year will likely be publicized around 8:15 tonight.

Though the national races — namely Trump vs. Biden, and Tillis vs. Cunningham — have captured the bulk of attention from the media and public, the partisan makeup of public boards and offices closer to home will be decided Tuesday. 

In those races the slightest margins can make all the difference. In the 2016 board of commissioners contest, when voters chose three new county commissioners from a slate of six candidates (the same format as this year’s lineup), the difference between third and fourth place was 360 votes. In 2018 the District 9 Senate race was decided by 231 votes.

Lee vs. Peterson

Sen. Harper Peterson and former Sen. Michael Lee are once again dueling for the District 9 seat, with Peterson now the incumbent. The two candidates have been bouncing from polling site to polling site throughout the day, capping a race that reprised intensely negative advertising each campaign presented in 2018.

Aaron King, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, said recent alterations to state Senate district maps — which are newly at play in the 2020 election as a result of years of gerrymandering claims and disputes — could favor Peterson. 

The 2020 District 9 map is different than it was in 2018 in two key ways, King said. 

1. In previous years, the neighboring District 8 included a chunk of downtown Wilmington roughly between Greenfield Lake and Market Street. In 2020 that zone is part of District 9. 

On left is the 2018 State Senate map, which had a chunk of downtown Wilmington allotted to District 8. In 2020 (right), downtown Wilmington is positioned within District 9.

2. A considerable plot of land in northern New Hanover County, largely a rural area, will be absorbed into District 8; it was part of District 9 in 2018. 

In the 2018 map (top), a large swath of northern county land within the District 9 realm. In 2020 (bottom), most of the county land north of I-140 was moved to District 8.

“When these things are so close, I feel like some of the redistricting can make a difference,” King said. “I think that the map is slightly more favorable to Harper Peterson this time.” 

Preventing cyber attacks

County officials also have their eyes on cybersecurity in the waning hours of voting. On Oct. 30 the N.C. Department of Public Safety and N.C. Department of Information Technology circulated a memo to information technology departments in counties throughout the state. The memo warned of newly emerging ransomware and other digital intrusion techniques currently in use by entities attempting to access sensitive government systems. 

Since February 2020, the memo stated 15 ransomware attacks have been successfully executed on local governments and academic institutions in N.C. Four counties, three cities, five K-12 school systems, and three higher education entities all were successfully targeted.

“Reports indicate that these attacks will continue to impact the State and cause disruption in our services offered to the residents of North Carolina,” according to the memo, which listed out a series of recommendations that county IT departments should put in place until at least Nov. 30. 

“In response to the elevated threats that came with this election cycle, we have been hyper-vigilant about our security and have implemented additional measures including shutting down some services on the network that we considered high risk,” Leslie Chaney, New Hanover County chief information officer, wrote in an email. “Without giving away details, we have taken extra steps to make sure that the county’s network is as strong as it can be.”

“I think that it is important to note that the machines used to tabulate the ballots for the election never touch the county’s business network. Staff in the elections office receive and tabulate the vote totals from each precinct and from the one stop and mail in ballots on a separate system than the one that the use for accessing the county’s systems. Having the physical segregation protects the integrity of the vote count,” Chaney wrote. 


Send tips and comments to Preston Lennon at preston@localdailymedia.com

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