Bookman: Courts forced to clean up Georgia’s elections mess

August 23, 2019 4:50 am

Today is likely one of the last chances many Georgia voters will get to use the state’s old balloting technology as they go to the polls to decide local elections. Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

Back in 2017, when Gov. Brian Kemp was still Georgia’s secretary of state and responsible for running fair elections and protecting our right to vote, he haughtily dismissed criticism that the state’s elections systems were vulnerable to hacking and might bar legal residents from voting.

Such questions, he wrote in USA Today, are “baseless and inaccurate.” They reflect “a complete misunderstanding of voting systems and what safeguards are in place to keep them secure.” Calls for federal oversight or assistance, he said, are “simply a big government power grab.”

“Misinformation from the media or disgruntled partisans not only fuels conspiracy theorists,” Kemp warned, “but also erodes the first safeguard we have in our elections — the public’s trust.”

With all that settled, Kemp then marched off to resume fighting what he considered the “real” dragon, devoting his time, energy and state resources to fighting a “voter fraud” problem that no Republican in this state or any other state has ever proved exists.

Meanwhile, back in real life, lawsuits filed in federal court began to uncover very real, very serious problems with the election-security system that Kemp had defended so ardently.

Documents and expert testimony painted a picture of an election bureaucracy that ignored fundamental security risks, that did nothing when those risks were pointed out by others, that lied repeatedly to cover up its failures. When the court demanded preservation of computer files that might demonstrate such incompetence, state officials instead destroyed them, later claiming the destruction was inadvertent.

In the ominous words of U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg, the claim that the files “were not intentionally destroyed or wiped is flatly not credible.”

State officials “have previously minimized, erased, or dodged the issues underlying this case,” Totenberg wrote in a recent order, blasting their “blithe blindness” to “a catalogue of pervasive voting problems.”

Overall, she wrote, “the totality of evidence in this case reveals that the secretary of state’s efforts in monitoring the security of its voting systems have been lax at best – a clear indication that Georgia’s computerized election system is vulnerable in actual use.”

She also found substantial evidence that flaws and breakdowns in the state system had prevented significant numbers of Georgia voters from legally casting the votes that they are constitutionally permitted to cast.

Against all this, state officials have mounted little effective defense. They’ve been caught red-handed, and they know it. Their fallback position has been to claim that the lawsuits and court orders have all been unnecessary and that they intended to fix these problems all along, pointing to legislation passed last session to significantly update the state’s election infrastructure.

However, if Kemp and others had their way, that legislation never would have passed and these problems would still be occurring. In fact, there’s still significant doubt that the state’s new system actually addresses the faults laid out in court so convincingly. Either way, while Georgia officials were spending millions of dollars building a voter ID system to fix a problem that does not exist, they paid little or no attention to actual problems that compromised the integrity of the electoral system that they claim to want to protect.

And while Kemp had earlier dismissed the necessity of federal oversight or involvement in Georgia’s election system, dismissing it as “fake news,” it should not go unnoticed that it has taken a federal judge to uncover all this and demand fixes, because state officials just didn’t seem to care much.

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Jay Bookman
Jay Bookman

Jay Bookman covered Georgia and national politics for nearly 30 years for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, earning numerous national, regional and state journalism awards. He has been awarded the National Headliner Award and the Walker Stone Award for outstanding editorial writing, and is the only two-time winner of the Pulliam Fellowship granted by the Society of Professional Journalists. He is also the author of "Caught in the Current," published by St. Martin's Press.