Is 2018 the year that Georgia finally turns blue?

Multi-Media Visions of Community

By: Robert Thomas

The Democratic ticket

Georgia Democratic candidate for governor Stacey Abrams (top center) stands with several other Democratic candidates for office on the ballot for the 2018 midterm elections at a rally in Conyers, Georgia on Oct. 26, 2018. Stacey Abrams spoke to potential voters at the Kingdom Builders Church in Conyers about what sets her apart from her opponent in the race.

“We have everything to lose, and everything to gain,” said Melissa Frost, a life-long democrat who recently became very politically active. Frost continued, “If we lose everything, and I’m not being hyperbolic, I feel that for most people we will have lost, and authoritarianism and kleptocracy will have won.”

Frost is a Cobb county volunteer for the Georgia Democratic party and the Stacey Abrams campaign who helps in canvassing, phone banking, and in training new volunteers to do the same. Frost is 47-years old and feels that this midterm election is more important than any she can remember in her lifetime. She is also not alone in this feeling, as a recent poll has shown that a broad majority of Americans, 62 percent, feel the same. Because of how important she feels this election is, and due to having more time on her hands lately, Frost has become more politically involved this year than she ever has.

“I am working very hard to turn it blue, and I think purple is a very distinct possibility,” Frost said. “I’ve talked to a lot of volunteers who have never gotten involved with politics at all beyond voting and they are determined to do whatever they can. ”

This personal anecdote of increased political participation is also seemingly not unfounded, as the Georgia Secretary of State’s office announced on Oct. 10 that Georgia had shattered it’s previous all-time voter registration record this year, with over 6,915,000 active and inactive voters on the rolls for the midterm election. Early voting in the election has also seen a dramatic increase of over triple that of 2014 in the first week of the election. Within the first eight days alone, 532,717 people cast their votes, versus the 164,298 votes cast in the first eight days of the 2014 midterms.

However, while this increased level of voter turnout may be encouraging for Democrats, there has been a long history of Democrats predicting that the state would flip to blue in previous election cycles, including in 2008, 2012, 2014, and most recently in 2016 – all of which fell short. In reference to why she feels that this year is different, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams said,

Demography is never destiny. It tells you what’s possible, it doesn’t tell you what will happen. And what we’ve worked out for the last two years is actually engaging those voters who have been left out of the conversation. We’ve been to every county in the state, and we’ve been to every community in the state. We are doing more and investing more than anyone ever has before, because we are going to actually leverage and turn those voters into actual voters this year. That’s why we’re going to win, because we’re activating voters who have never been talked to in the state of Georgia.

Abrams has long worked to vastly increase voter registrations in the state, especially among millennials, nonwhites and unmarried woman. In 2013, as the Democrats’ minority leader in the Georgia House, she founded the New Georgia Project to get 800,000 people of color registered to vote within a decade. While the New Georgia Project is a nonpartisan organization, it mainly targets groups that consistently vote Democrat.

However, despite Abram’s confidence in her win, there is no shortage of election experts that will disagree with her. “I think she’s wrong. It’s totally demography,” said Kerwin Swint, Ph.D, a political science expert and the interim Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Kennesaw State University. “Georgia will likely be a purple or blue state soon, not because Georgians are becoming progressives or they are deciding that Democrats are right. It’s that the percentage of white voters is dropping. It’s purely racial.”

Swint referred to an article that he wrote for Georgia Trend Magazine in September of last year in which he argues that Georgia is likely to turn purple in 2024. While Swint believes it is a bit too early for the state to turn blue, he qualifies this prediction by saying that it is unlikely unless the “blue wave” materializes. Swint also says that this year could be different because of President Donald Trump energizing Democrats to come out to vote, but says the flip side of this is that he is also energizing Republicans to come out to vote as well. Trump famously tweeted out his endorsement for Sec. Brian Kemp, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, during the primaries.

However, Swint is skeptical of Abrams’ claims that she is driving more voters to the polls that do not usually vote, due to how common the claim is among politicians, but says that the election results will be the true determining factor to if she is right. “Jason Carter went to every part of the state and he talked to Democratic voters too that ‘hadn’t been talked to’.” Swint continued, “But they didn’t show up for him. They might show up for her.”

While Jason Carter, the Georgia Democratic candidate for governor in 2014, supported a very moderate platform in attempting to win over voters in the state, Abrams has taken a path that is not typical for Democrats in Georgia by supporting a far more left leaning, or “progressive,” agenda in her campaign. Abrams, however, claims that her progressive values are Georgia values, and that voters will respond to her authenticity.

“I believe by being an authentic candidate who stands in my values and declares those values and connects them to policies that improve the lives of Georgians, that’s what people are going to hear and that’s why we’re going to win,” Abrams said.

Swint says that what is different about Abrams is that she will be able to rally the Democratic base in a way that Carter couldn’t because of this. Although Swint says a more leftist platform is a double-edged sword, he believes voters will respect her for standing strong in her convictions.

Additionally, Swint stated that the current record numbers in voter registration and early voting are an encouraging sign for Democrats. “It absolutely is a good sign and that may be an indication that that ‘blue wave’ is going to show up for her,” Swint says.

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.

After Server Wipe Scandal, Georgia Residents Consider Returning to Paper Ballots

Advanced Media Writing

By Robert Thomas

Like many others, Mari Jacobson was quite excited for her chance to vote for the first time in Georgia’s June 20 6th congressional district special election last year and had great confidence that her vote counted.

As Jacobson went with her mom to vote at a local library in Johns Creek, Georgia, that sunny afternoon, she was pessimistic but hopeful about her preferred candidate’s chances of winning. Despite not feeling “super magical” after her first time voting as she expected, Jacobson had strong faith in the election process, and the electronic voting machine she voted on. “I know there were a lot of questions of interference when it came to the presidential election, but I didn’t really think about it pertaining to this small election,” Jacobson said. But after hearing news of the scandal over Georgia’s election servers being wiped last October, she now feels her confidence in the process has been shattered.

She is, however, joined in her skepticism of the current process by State Rep. Scot Turner, who last week proposed House Bill 680 to return the state to paper ballots, which he says are more secure than electronic voting machines. Turner not alone in his push, as in recent years there has been an increasing number of states returning to traditional paper ballots. Although, many local voters remain skeptical of whether switching to paper ballots would have any actual impact on election security.

Broderick Armbrister, who also voted in the election, echoes Jacobson in saying he felt quite passionate about his vote as he stepped into the voting booth at the Milton Public Library and fulfilled what he considered to be his “citizen duties” that afternoon. Armbrister says he considers himself politically active and even went canvassing for his preferred candidate a number of times prior to the election. “I try to be practical with these things,” Armbrister said. “Politics is no joke. It’s really serious.”

Politically fatigued with the current political atmosphere, however, Jacobson was unsurprised when she initially heard of the scandal over Georgia’s election server’s being wiped. “I should’ve been more shocked than I was, but I really kind of wasn’t,” she said. “It was just kind of like ‘Oh. Well that happened.’” Like many others, Jacobson felt powerless and unsure of what one person could do. Though this news increased her skepticism of electronic voting, she remains skeptical of the benefit of paper ballots versus electronic voting.

State Rep. Turner, however, strongly believes in the superior security of traditional paper ballots over electronic voting machines, and is fighting to make the switch. Turner is apparently not alone among his party in this sentiment either; as David Shock, a Kennesaw State University political science professor, says that there is currently a significant division over the issue at the state level. “It appears that you have some Republicans trying to put Brian Kemp, the Secretary of State, in a difficult position in terms of defending electronic voting”, said Shock. Brian Kemp, who Shock says is the one of the leading candidates for the Republican nomination in the gubernatorial election, has vigorously defended the safety of electronic voting.

While Shock is skeptical there is substantial risk with electronic voting, he does see the benefits of paper ballots and also concurs with State Rep. Scot Turner in saying that paper ballots are most likely more secure. Previous studies by security experts at Princeton University, however, have repeatedly demonstrated that many electronic voting machines are dangerously insecure and vulnerable to attack and manipulation. Another similar study, done by the Brennan Center for Justice, showed that 43 states, including Georgia, were using voting machines that were at least a decade old; perilously close to the end of the projected lifespan for most of these systems. Security experts at Princeton University say this puts them at an increased risk of attack and manipulation.

However, despite these flaws of electronic voting, there are definite advantages to electronic voting. “The advantage of electronic voting is that it prevents people from casting, at least accidently, what is called a spoiler ballot,” said Shock. A spoiler ballot is a paper ballot that has been marked in a way that invalidates the ballot. Shock said spoiler ballots are typically significantly below 1 percent in any given election. In fact, a survey of the 2006 midterm elections by the United States Election Assistance Commission found an undervoting rate of just 0.1 percent in US Senate elections and 1.6 percent in US House elections, with overvotes being even rarer. Shock also says that electronic voting machines allow for significantly faster tallying of votes, and thus faster election results.

An analysis of data by the Pew Research Center found that nearly half of registered voters, or 47 percent, live in jurisdictions that use only optical-scan paper ballot voting as their standard voting system, and about 28 percent live in jurisdictions with electronic voting machines only. Another 19 percent of registered voters live in jurisdictions where both are used.

A possible compromise to this issue, that many jurisdictions have clearly taken, is paper ballot assistive marking devices. Rather than recording the vote into a computer’s memory, these electronic devices instead mark votes on a paper that is later tabulated manually. The benefit of these machines is a verifiable paper audit trail, or physical slips of paper for every vote that is counted is produced. Some of these devices even produce a tangible piece of paper for the voter showing the name of the candidate they voted for, and a symbol of the party. This allows a voter a verifiable means of knowing their vote was correctly counted. These machines also have the added benefit of reducing or eliminating the amount of unintentionally spoilt votes made on paper.

Although many security experts say that paper ballots are more secure, several voters, like Jacobson and Armbrister, are still skeptical that paper ballots will make a difference, with Jacobson going as far as to say she believes electronic voting is possibly equally secure. “I don’t think going backwards is the next step,” said Jacobson. “We should try to find out a new more innovative way if they really want to change it.”