The New York Times never reported that election systems in Durham, N.C., had succumbed to Russian hacking. In fact, the story indicated straight-up that “no clear-cut evidence of digital sabotage has emerged, much less a Russian role in it.” Even so, the Sept. 2 front-page story by Nicole Perlroth, Michael Wines and Matthew Rosenberg did quote an election “troubleshooter” as saying something suspicious regarding irregularities on Election Day in Durham: “It felt like tampering, or some kind of cyberattack,” Susan Greenhalgh told the newspaper. There were indeed difficulties, as laid out in the lede of the story by Perlroth, et al. So-called e-poll books — essentially digital rolls that guide voting-day check-ins — malfunctioned, resulting in potential voters leaving in frustration or standing in line, annoyed. The state’s vendor for e-poll books was VR Systems, a Florida company that was targeted by Russian state hackers, according to a leaked document from the National Security Agency. Many accounts have concluded that VR Systems was “successfully infiltrated,” though the company disputes the characterizations. “Absolutely we deny it,” says VR Systems’s Ben Martin.
Derek Bowens, Durham’s election director starting in June, is quoted in the New York Times story as saying, “We do not believe, and evidence does not suggest, that hacking occurred on Election Day.” The problem, says Martin, was that officials had “not run a process called ‘cleanup’ on all of the machines. That is what caused the anomaly when the voters showed up at the polls that morning.” Other North Carolina counties that used VR, says Martin, didn’t experience the sort of difficulty that plagued Durham.
Publication of the story touched off some contentious correspondence between elections officials in North Carolina and the New York Times. The Durham County Board of Elections issued a news release attacking the newspaper: “Many of the allegations contained in the coverage are based on remote hearsay or were otherwise unverified by election officials in North Carolina before the story was published. In response to these concerns, the Durham County Board of Elections, along with the State Board of Elections & Ethics Enforcement, is respectfully requesting that The New York Times retract or correct its coverage unless verifiable evidence is provided.” The board also took issue with the story’s claim that Durham County had “rebuffed” offers of assistance from the Department of Homeland Security and a separate forensics team.