Stolen Computers in Atlanta Hold Statewide Voter Data

Two computers that are used to check in voters were stolen from a west Atlanta precinct hours before polls opened for a recent school board election, and those computers hold statewide voter data.

by Mark Niesse & Arielle Kass, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution / September 18, 2019
Atlanta skyline and Interstate 75 and 85. Shutterstock/JSvideos

(TNS) — Two computers that are used to check in voters were stolen from a west Atlanta precinct hours before polls opened Tuesday for a city school board election.

Officials replaced the computers before voters arrived, and the election wasn’t disrupted, according to the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office.

The express poll computers contain names, addresses, birth dates and driver’s license information for every voter in the state, said Richard Barron, Fulton County’s elections director. They don’t include Social Security numbers. They are password-protected, and the password changes for every election.

The computers, which were in a locked and sealed case, haven’t been recovered.

Poll workers discovered the burglary early Tuesday morning at the Grove Park Recreation Center near Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway.

Atlanta police said they were first called to the recreation center at 12:30 a.m. on an alarm call. They found an unlocked door but saw no one inside.

When election employees arrived, they told police “the kitchen had been ransacked,” a microwave had been moved to a different room, food items were missing and the express poll machines were missing, Atlanta police Sgt. John Chafee said.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said he’s concerned about the stolen election equipment.

“They may not have realized what they were stealing. They may have just thought they were stealing computer hardware of some sort, but they stole a whole lot more than they thought,” Raffensperger said. “They’re in a whole lot of trouble. There will be a thorough investigation.”

At the Grove Park Recreation Center, turnout was low in the nine-way special election for school board District 2, a seat that became vacant when Byron Amos resigned to run for the Atlanta City Council.

After casting his ballot, Sean Harris said he was able to vote without a problem.

“I didn’t even know anyone had broken in,” Harris said.

This isn’t the first time express poll units have been stolen in the state. In 2017, a Cobb County machine was stolen from a precinct manager’s car.

Barron said the machines don’t connect to the internet and can’t be used for other purposes. He said they can’t be tracked.

“I’m sure whoever took them had no idea what was in that case,” he said. “A Palm Pilot from 2000 is probably more sophisticated than those things. They’re pretty primitive pieces of equipment.”

The check-in computers that were taken are part of Georgia’s 17-year-old voting system, which is scheduled to be replaced statewide starting with the March presidential primary election.

The new voting system will come with iPads for voter registration check-ins, which will include additional security capabilities. The Apple operating system allows election officials to remotely erase data and track the locations of iPads.

“These upgrades protect privacy and enhance security for the entire statewide voting system,” said Tess Hammock, a spokeswoman for the Secretary of State’s Office, which is also investigating the incident. “We encourage every county to secure its equipment, new or old, properly.”

The Secretary of State’s Office trains county election officials on cyber and physical security, she said.

Barron said he hoped voters’ information remained secure. He said it was frustrating to have to deal with the theft.

“In this era of distrust of everything, it’s just another thing to have to explain,” Barron said.

Atlanta police said they are working to identify who is behind the burglary.

The school board seat wasn’t the only special election on Tuesday. Voters in the south part of Fulton County were also voting in a special election for a new District 6 commissioner to replace Emma Darnell, who died this spring.

In addition to the theft, voters at the Southwest Arts Center were required to vote on provisional ballots when polls opened there. Barron said a 2-foot-long snake by the front door delayed normal voting.

©2019 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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