New Georgia election board chair takes helm ahead of midterms

New election security concerns raised

By: - June 7, 2022 2:00 am

A federal agency confirms that Georgia’s voting system is vulnerable to hacking but notes there isn’t any evidence of corruption with the 2020 election. In 2019, Georgia this year replaced a voting machine system in use since 2002 that was deemed vulnerable to security breaches. Getty Images Plus

A newly rebuilt State Election Board is positioned to determine whether the state takes over Fulton County election operations, oversee Georgia’s pivotal midterms, and investigate election security challenges.

The‌ ‌new chair of the state board ‌is‌ retired U.S. District Court of Northern Georgia Judge William Duffey Jr., who was appointed Friday by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, the same day the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency released an advisory identifying vulnerabilities in the state’s voting software but ‌found‌ ‌no‌ ‌evidence‌ ‌of‌ ‌election interference.

This report could factor into a lengthy and long-running court case pitting the state against voting organizations over the security of the state’s‌ electronic voting system. ‌The state board that oversees state elections could also have an influence on how the process is‌ ‌handled for the future use of Georgia’s Dominion Voting Systems machines purchased in 2019 to the tune of $107 million to replace its old Diebold machines in time for the 2020 election cycle.

The cybersecurity agency’s report released last week confirmed vulnerabilities in the Dominion touch screens that had been the basis of a report from expert witness University of Michigan professor Alex Halderman, who wrote that states should do a better job of safeguarding their voting systems and that it’s dangerous to rely on digital technology that is more susceptible to hacking instead of using the more secure hand-marked paper ballots to conduct elections.  

On Monday, election security was the focus of a letter sent to the state election board from the vice chair of the Morgan County Democratic Party and the chairs of the Libertarian Party of Georgia and Cobb County Republican Party.

The request called for the state board to implement a paper ballot system after the federal government report confirms that it’s possible for the electronic systems to be compromised. The emergency paper ballot system that’s already contemplated under state law should be used until appropriate measures are taken to resolve the cybersecurity issues.

“Georgia voters’ confidence continues to deteriorate in the face of election problems caused by this complex system,” the letter says. “As members of the State Election Board, you are charged to take action to ensure secure, fair and orderly elections.

“The facts are compelling and any argument to the contrary pales in comparison to the need to switch to emergency balloting for the pending elections,” the letter continues. “Further delays continue to put the statewide elections at greater risk, given the widespread understanding of the vulnerabilities of the system and the alleged leak of the system software into unauthorized hands.”

The‌ ‌cybersecurity department’s report made it clear that there is no proof that the systems have been compromised to influence the 2020 presidential election or subsequent ones, such as Georgia’s primary on May 24. ‌Georgia’s voting system brought scrutiny as one of the states targeted in the 2020 presidential election as lies about the results fueled conspiracy theories falsely claiming the ballot tally was manipulated so that then-President Donald Trump lost Georgia by fewer than 12,000 votes to Democrat Joe Biden.

The‌ ‌report‌ ‌recommends states that use those Dominion systems conduct extensive post-election audits of ballots, protect the voting software, including printers and connecting cables, and perform regular software updates.

The report suggests getting rid of the bar code that comes printed on paper ballots. The report also encourages voters to review their votes on the printed ballots, which studies show rarely happens. 

“As noted, we are closely engaged with election officials across the country to help them address these vulnerabilities by applying the mitigation recommended in the advisory,” wrote Jen Easterly, director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. “Many of these mitigations, which are typically standard practices in jurisdictions where these devices are in use, are able to detect exploitation of these vulnerabilities and in many cases would prevent attempts entirely if diligently applied, making it very unlikely that a malicious actor could exploit these vulnerabilities to affect an election.”

In the Dominion system, Georgians cast their votes on large touch-screen devices before printing a paper ballot containing their selections and a QR code, or a barcode, that is scanned to tabulate the results.

U.S. District Court Judge Amy Totenberg has said that electronic voting systems pose security risks and that Dominion’s reliance on the QR code might not align with Georgia law. 

Dominion‌ ‌said‌ ‌the advisory reaffirms the thousands of hand counts and recounts that have demonstrated that the‌‌ ‌‌machines‌‌ ‌‌are‌‌ ‌‌accurate‌‌ ‌‌and‌‌ ‌‌secure, noting that problems it outlines are limited to ballot marking devices and not voting tabulators. 

Additionally, the company stated that voters are still able to independently verify their ballot before casting it, and that there is no evidence that elections have been tampered with.

“These issues require unfettered physical access to election equipment, which is already prohibited by mandatory election protocols,” the statement said. “Every voting system, even hand counting, depends on these same process protections to ensure secure elections.

Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has criticized Halderm’s reports, calling the level of access he was given to the state’s election system akin to a burglar being given the keys and alarm code to a home before breaking in.

But the state’s office has said it’s been looking at ways to improve the state’s voting system security.

Contrary to the claims by Trump and many of his allies, investigations by the FBI, the former president’s own attorney general and other national security agencies found no widespread fraud or security breaches with voting machines contributed to the 2020 election results.

Among those urging state officials to follow the cybersecurity report’s recommendations are nonpartisan nonprofit Verified Voting.

“The report underscores the importance of paper ballots, which bolster election security because they let voters verify that their votes are recorded correctly, and calls for rigorously auditing ballots after each election to confirm accurate counts,” said Pam Smith, president and CEO of Verified Voting. “Paper ballots can also be fully recounted if needed. The report addresses one specific voting system, but some of these recommendations, including those on physical security and chain of custody, are appropriate for all jurisdictions regardless of the voting system in use.”

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The reconstructed State Election Board oversaw a May 24 primary that went relatively smoothly, but the state’s election system and voting law will continue to be under scrutiny leading into this November’s midterm election,  as well as the decisions of the Secretary of State and State Election Board.

The board’s new chair, Duffey, is a federal judicial appointee of President George W. Bush in 2004 who retired in 2018. He will now serve as the nonpartisan board chair of a five-member board with three Republicans and one Democrat. The position remained vacant over the past year after Raffensperger lost the chairmanship following the passage of the election law overhaul.

Retired federal judge William S. Duffey, Jr. is the chairman of the State Election Board.

Republican ‌lawmakers ‌who support eliminating the partisan elected position of secretary of said they want to end the partisanship associated with the chairmanship.

In his role as chairman, Duffey sets the agenda of a board that in the coming weeks or months, will likely receive the results of an investigation into Fulton County’s‌ ‌election‌ ‌operations and deal with a slew of other issues.

Duffey served as deputy to independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr for the Arkansas portion of the Whitewater investigation into the real estate deals of then-President Bill Clinton and wife Hillary Rodham Clinton.

When he became U.S. attorney in 2001, Duffey ‌took over a massive investigation into corruption at Atlanta City Hall. 

Duffey said his legal expertise is suited to handle the complex issues before the state election board.  

“Our democracy is founded on citizens participating in the process to elect those who govern them,” he said in a news release. “I am committed to working with my colleagues on the State Elections Board to perform our duty to protect the integrity of the election process because every Georgia voter is entitled to know their vote is secure and that it counts.”

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Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap

Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.

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