Georgia’s sixth district will conduct one of the most closely watched congressional elections in recent history on Tuesday. The race, which is being called a toss-up, could flip the historically red district to Democrats. But according to one security researcher, the results could potentially be rigged.
Cybersecurity researcher Logan Lamb discovered last summer that a security hole leaves the state’s online voter records accessible by hackers, who could plant malware and potentially rig the election, according to an interview with Politico.
Even before he told Politico of the dangers of the state’s electronic election system, voters in the state had been raising concerns. In late May, two voters in the sixth district teamed up with a Colorado-based nonprofit to file a lawsuit arguing that Georgia’s voting system is “vulnerable to hacking, errors, and other mischief.”
Concerns with the state’s system, combined with troubling reports about the extent of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, are causing some Georgia voters to worry that their ballots for Democrat Jon Ossoff or Republican Karen Handel may not be fairly counted.
States know how to secure ballots—but just don’t follow through
Election and computer security experts agree that the best way to secure elections is to make sure that voting machines have paper records to back up the electronic results. But Georgia uses direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting machines, so if someone were to call for a recount, the machines would only be able to spit out the same number. There would be no paper backups.
“There’s no way to independently verify individual votes,” Nse Ufot, director of the New Georgia Project, told ThinkProgress. “There have been open letters written by computer science professors and political science professors from universities all across the country to Georgia’s secretary of state. The secretary of state’s response has been that this is a state issue, so we’re going to dismiss them. People are really concerned.”
“There’s no way to independently verify individual votes.”
In late May, 16 computer scientists wrote Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp (R) “expressing profound concerns about the lack of verifiability and poor security of Georgia’s DRE-based voting system,” according to the complaint. The lawsuit also alleged that failures in the DRE system allowed improper memory cards to be uploaded into the election database during the April 18 election and that the physical security of the voting machines has been inadequate. The weekend before the election, four voting machines were stolen from a Cobb County precinct manager’s vehicle. It took two days for the manager to report the crime.
There have also been breaches to the security of the online systems. Lamb, the security researcher who discovered the hole in the state’s system, said he is concerned that hackers may have already accessed the website of the Kennesaw State University’s Center for Election Systems, which tests and programs voting machines for the state of Georgia. Hackers could plant malware that would record votes for different candidates, and the state would never know without a paper trail to back up the votes.
In December, someone with the Department of Homeland Security also tried to hack Georgia’s voter database, but the attempt was unsuccessful.
Kemp has ignored all of the concerns, the lawsuit alleges.
In the past, Kemp has also been reluctant to address Georgia’s vulnerabilities. When the federal government offered assistance to states for election security before the 2016 election, Kemp declined, citing state sovereignty. Democrats have criticized that and other election-related decisions Kemp has made in recent years, calling them politically charged. In March, Kemp entered the 2018 race for Georgia governor.
The election moves forward, despite legitimate concerns
Last week, a Fulton County Superior Court judge denied the voters’ request to change to a paper ballot system in the three counties participating in the special election, but the ruling was on a technicality, leaving room for further litigation over the flawed voting system.
But for now, as the run-off in most expensive House race in U.S. history nears, Georgia voters remain concerned that a number of improper things could occur, and there will not be any accountability.
“With the polls having Ossoff and Handel so close, people are really concerned that a couple of hundred votes here, a couple of hundred votes there could be changed,” Ufot said. “There won’t be any clarity about who the people of the sixth congressional district actually chose to be their representative.”
Ufot’s voting rights group has been knocking on roughly 1,500 doors a day to get out the vote in minority communities in the weeks leading up to the run-off. Many people they reach out to are also concerned, she said, because the integrity of the vote was challenged before the April primary.
“There are some concerning and suspicious events that occurred leading up to the final days of the April 18th election.”
Jill Meyers, who moved to the sixth district since the primary but was able to register in time for the run-off thanks to litigation, told ThinkProgress she held off early voting because she was hoping a court would intervene and force the state to use paper ballots.
“Paper ballots are much easier to verify and recount,” she said. “It’s a verifiable audit trail that, to date, Georgia cannot provide. To be perfectly honest, there are some concerning and suspicious events that occurred leading up to the final days of the April 18th election.”
Meyers said she will head to the polls, but with deep concerns.
“We’re a very trusting society,” she said, “but these machines are really bad.”