Georgia election officials struggle to ensure security in state elections

Multi-Media Visions of Community

By: Robert Thomas 

Brian Kemp Speaks.jpg

Sec. Brian Kemp speaks at a campaign event at the John Megel Chevrolet in Dawsonville, Georgia on Monday, October 1, 2018. Sec. Kemp spoke at the event as part of a political bus tour across the state with stops in several counties.

Are Georgia state election officials doing enough to ensure the security of the election? A mounting wave of controversies, evidence, lawsuits and expert opinion shows that your vote might not be as secure as you think.

According to US District Court Judge Amy Totenberg, Georgia voting integrity advocates have recently shown “the threat of real harms to their constitutional interests” in a case filed against Secretary of State Brian Kemp and state election officials. The plaintiffs in the case argued that Georgia’s touchscreen voting machines, which have been used since 2002, are vulnerable to hacking and lack a verifiable paper trail, and therefore sought an injunction to force the state to move to paper ballots prior to the upcoming midterm election.

Judge Totenburg rejected the injunction last month solely over concerns that the “massive scrambling” necessary for the state to switch prior to the midterm election would cause greater problems in the “orderly administration of the election” and disenfranchise voters further. However, Judge Totenburg heavily criticized state election officials as having “stood by for far too long, given the mounting tide of evidence of the inadequacy and security risks of Georgia’s DRE voting system and software.”

Several technology experts have criticized the insecurity of the state’s election system and warned it’s potential to be hacked. Hossain Shahriar, Ph.D, a professor of computer science and expert in computer and network security, does not believe state elections officials are doing enough to ensure the security of elections in Georgia. “I believe there is certainly opportunity to do more, at least to be at the national average. We have to see the investment and also the effort to make the election system secure,” Shahriar said.

Shahriar believes that the state is not devoting near enough of the state budget to ensuring that election systems are safe and secure.

Although there is no evidence that hackers have penetrated Georgia’s electronic voting machines during an election, Shahriar says that it would possible for malware to be written so that it’s undetectable, leaving no trace that the voting totals had ever been tampered with.

Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, whose office oversees the integrity of elections in the state, has repeatedly stated that Georgia’s current voting system is secure. However, these arguments for the security of the system come despite a number of somewhat contradictory blunders that have plagued the Secretary of State’s office over the last year.

In August 2016, private cybersecurity researcher Logan Lamb discovered the records of more than 6 million registered Georgia voters, password files and encryption keys could be readily downloaded from a website of Kennesaw State University. Despite Lamb informing the election center, it took over six months for the center to address the issue.

Then in October of last year, AP news reported that a computer server crucial to a lawsuit against Georgia election officials was quietly wiped clean by its custodians shortly after the suit was filed. Sec. Kemp’s office later opened an investigation and concluded that Kennesaw State University’s elections center, where the voter data was maintained, acted “in accordance with standard IT procedures” when it wiped data from a computer server shortly after the lawsuit was filed. An investigation was launched by the FBI and closed without comment. Despite the Center for Elections Systems at Kennesaw State University ultimately reporting to his office, Kemp continues to blame the center for the issues.

Kemp denies that the voter server wipe had anything to do with his office. “What happened with the server was at Kennesaw State – it was their server,” Kemp says. “The FBI investigated that. They took the server. Anything that happened to that server, the FBI did it, so you’d have to ask Kennesaw State or the FBI about that.”

Kemp also claims there was never a data breach and that the notion there was is “fake news.”

Kemp says, “We have 12 discs that were released, we secured those, and no information got out to the public, and we’re making sure that never happens again.”

However, Kerwin Swint, Ph.D, a political science expert and the interim Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Kennesaw State University, says that Kemp, who has been Secretary of State since 2010, is ultimately constitutionally accountable for the recent issues.

“His office definitely bears some responsibility, because it’s part of their job to maintain the voting systems to ensure that they’re safe and reliable, and obviously they’ve had significant issues doing that,” Swint says.

A number of activist groups have also raised questions about the ethics of Kemp, who is currently running for governor in the state, overseeing the integrity of an election in which he is running in, and have called for Kemp to step down as Secretary of State. “It is ethically wrong for a politician to oversee the campaign he is a candidate in,” reads an online petition launched by the groups Georgia Alliance for Social Justice and Resist Trump Tuesdays.

Kemp has dismissed any notion of stepping down as Secretary of State and his response to those questioning the ethics of his decision is to pass the buck onto his Democratic predecessors who he says did the same. “I’m doing the same thing that Democrat Secretary of State Cathy Cox did when she ran for governor.”

While it is true that three of Kemp’s past four predecessors launched unsuccessful campaigns for governor, both Democratic candidates Cathy Cox and Lewis Massey did not win their democratic primaries.

Kemp also places the burden on county officials to count and process voting totals state, despite his office ultimately certifying the election. “The counties actually count the votes and certify the election and then send it to us to double check it and then do the final certification, so there’s nothing improper about that at all. I’ve done that in the past and never had any issues, and we won’t have any this time,” Kemp said.

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