Georgia election officials discuss breach, security measures

ATLANTA (AP) — The Georgia State Election Board held a meeting Wednesday meant to reassure board members and the general public that the state's elections remain secure following the revelation of a breach of voting equipment in one county.

The meeting included a presentation on state election law, an explanation of how the state's voting machines work and a description of post-election audits. It also included a report on the criminal investigation into the breach of voting equipment in rural Coffee County.

“I think what happened in Coffee County was despicable,” board Chairman William Duffey, a retired federal judge, said after the meeting. If the investigation finds evidence of crimes, the penalties should be significant “to let people there and in other counties know that we are not going to put up with that,” he said.

While acknowledging the serious concerns raised by that breach, the board members cited security measures outlined during the meeting and said they remain confident in the state's election system.

Sara Tindall Ghazal, the state Democratic Party's appointee to the board, said elections have to balance three “sometimes-competing interests” — security, accessibility and efficient administration.

“Georgia’s system reflects an attempt to balance these issues and interests," she said. "I have trust in our election officials and in our voters to ensure that our elections will proceed smoothly and securely and that the outcome will reflect the will of the voters.”

A computer forensics team hired by allies of then-President Donald Trump traveled to the elections office in Coffee County, about 200 miles southeast of Atlanta, on Jan. 7, 2021, and made complete copies of data and software on elections equipment, according to documents and deposition testimony produced in response to subpoenas in a long-running lawsuit challenging the security of the state's voting machines. Security camera video from the elections office shows that local Republican Party and county election officials were present when the copying took place.

The video also shows that two men who have participated in efforts to question the results of the 2020 election in several states repeatedly visited the Coffee County elections office later that month, spending hours inside.

A group of computer and election security experts earlier this month sent a letter to the State Election Board saying that the breach poses “serious threats” to the state's voting system. The experts include academics and former state election officials and aren’t associated with efforts by Trump and his allies to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. They urged the board to replace the state's Dominion Voting Systems touchscreen voting machines with hand-marked paper ballots.

During a presentation on state election law, Republican election board member Matt Mashburn said the board can only mandate such an emergency measure in cases of “imminent peril to public health, safety, or welfare."

The ballots printed by Georgia's voting machines include a QR code — a barcode that is read and tabulated by a scanner — and a human-readable list representing the voter's selections.

Dominion CEO John Poulos appeared by videoconference and described to election board members how the voting system works. He highlighted various security measures, including encryption, passwords, physical seals and testing done in public before elections. He said it's very important for voters to verify that the list on the ballot reflects their selections.

Blake Evans, elections director for the secretary of state's office, walked board members through the process for the audits that Georgia now uses to check one statewide race during even-year general elections. The risk-limiting audits rely on statistics, mathematics and a hand count of a sample of ballots to ensure that the machine-tabulated result is accurate.

Critics of the voting machines have said studies show voters rarely check their ballots. They say that means there's no guarantee the ballots accurately reflect voter intent, making any audit meaningless.

University of Michigan computer science professor J. Alex Halderman, an expert witness in the voting machines lawsuit that exposed the breach in Coffee County, identified what he says are security vulnerabilities in Georgia's voting machines. The Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency in June issued an advisory based on Halderman’s findings that advises jurisdictions that use the machines on how to mitigate the risks.

Dominion commissioned its own review of Halderman's findings by the MITRE Corporation. An executive summary of that report deems the potential attacks identified “operationally infeasible.”

The Halderman and MITRE reports were filed under seal in federal court. The election board unanimously endorsed a motion by member Ed Lindsey, a Republican former state lawmaker, to urge the judge overseeing the case to release the reports with necessary redactions. Lindsey said that would allow the public to “evaluate and have confidence in our election system.”

Kate Brumback, The Associated Press