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Who Should Foot the Bill to Fix Georgia’s Voting System?

A new voting system could cost as much as $60 million, and some believe the state government should fully fund any new technology.

by Tyler Jett, Chattanooga Times/Free Press / September 24, 2018
The state capital in Atlanta, GA. Shutterstock

(TNS) — As Georgia leaders debate how to replace the state's maligned voting system, local government officials have a simple request: Pick up the tab.

In its list of legislative priorities released earlier this month, the Association County Commissioners of Georgia said the state government should fully fund any new voting technology. It also said the state should pay to train county employees to use the new system — whatever it turns out to be.

State Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, said during a June meeting that a new voting system will cost "realistically" $30-$60 million. Todd Edwards, the association's deputy legislative director, pointed out Friday that a Georgia law on the books requires the state to pay for voting equipment in all 159 counties. That doesn't guarantee the law will be the same when the Legislature wraps up at end of March.

"There's always a concern," Edwards said. "However, at this point, we feel comfortable that the state is entertaining the notion of picking up that cost."

Catoosa County Elections & Voter Registration Director Tonya Moore said she has not heard any talk of the state forcing the local governments to pay for any part of the voting technology. A bigger question, she said, was how much the counties would receive from Atlanta to train their employees on how to use a new system.

"We just have to follow suit" with the state's demands, Moore said. "Whatever the legislature writes is how it works."

Edwards expects the counties and the state will split the cost on training: "We'll be doing some funding. We know we will. But whatever they can pick up on the state's side, we appreciate. There's no free ride here. We'll pay."

Facing criticism across the country about the possibility of hackers infiltrating voting machines — and with a federal lawsuit pending — Secretary of State Brian Kemp formed a commission in April to review possible replacements for Georgia's technology. Most notably, cybersecurity advocates have called for the new system to create a paper trail for each vote to make sure an outside force doesn't alter the results.

Kemp, the Republican nominee for governor, solicited bids from vendors Aug. 8-24, and the voting reform commission will meet again Oct. 12 in Macon.

The state has used touchscreen machines since 2002. At the time, the new technology cost about $54 million, with expenses covered by the federal government. This was part of the fallout from the controversy of the 2000 presidential election. Today, the state has about 27,000 voting machines.

Questions about the integrity of Georgia's elections began privately in August 2016, when cybersecurity analyst Logan Lamb said he looked into Georgia's Center for Elections website for a research project. He said he found files available to the public that should not have been. That included a voter registration database with personally identifiable information for Georgia residents. It also included PDF files with passwords to internal databases meant for election supervisors.

In addition, Lamb later wrote in an affidavit, the server was not properly protected from hackers. He said training videos for election workers instructed them to download files from the center's website onto memory cards. The memory cards go into Georgia's voting machines, where they are supposed to record how each person votes throughout the election day. When polls close, election workers pull the cards and insert them into a special computer designed specifically to read the results on the cards.

If someone secretly put a virus on the election center's website, Lamb argued, they could taint the results of an election.

"An attacker would have easily been able to gain full control of the server at had they so wanted," he wrote. " An attacker could modify files that are downloaded by the end users of the website, potentially spreading malware to everyone who downloaded files from the website."

In the affidavit, Lamb wrote that he told then-Center for Elections Systems Executive Director Merle King about the problem with the website a day after discovering it. He said King told him the problem would be fixed.

But in February 2017, according to the affidavit, Lamb told a colleague what he had found. The colleague, Chris Grayson, said he checked the website himself and discovered the same problems. Lamb said they also found more files publicly available, including memos for accessing internal databases on election day in November 2016.

In May of that year, some local elections officials asked Kemp to re-examine every voting machine. When they didn't hear back for two weeks, they sued Kemp, demanding a response. An attorney for the secretary of state's office responded with a letter days later. He explained a review of every machine would take about six months.

A spokesperson for Kemp told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in June 2017 that their office did not believe hackers targeted Georgia before the presidential election. But in July of this year, the U.S. Department of Justice unsealed indictments against 12 Russian intelligence officers that alleged they targeted county websites in Georgia.

During a voting reform commission meeting on June 13, Secretary of State Elections Director Chris Harvey pointed out that there is no firm proof that hackers took advantage of the vulnerabilities.

"There has not been any evidence that the votes cast by anyone in Georgia have been changed or otherwise tampered with," he said. "It simply hasn't happened."

A group of residents and the Coalition for Good Governance has sued Kemp's office in U.S. District Court over what they called "negligence, abuse of discretion, and noncompliance with the Federal Constitution." Though the lawsuit is pending, the plaintiffs asked a judge to force the state to use paper ballots in the upcoming November election.

Judge Amy Totenberg, appointed to the bench by Barack Obama, denied their motion Monday, saying the state does not have enough time to install a new voting system by the first week of November. But she also chided state election officials for taking so long to switch their system, writing that they "buried their heads in the sand."

"The state defendants have also stood by for far too long," Totenberg wrote, "given the mounting tide of evidence of the inadequacy and security risks of Georgia's voting system and software. The court is gravely concerned about the state's pace in responding to the serious vulnerabilities of its voting system."

©2018 the Chattanooga Times/Free Press (Chattanooga, Tenn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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