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A federal judge has banned Georgia from using paperless voting machines in 2020. It stopped short of requiring the state to implement a paper ballot backup for the upcoming 2019 election cycle as plaintiffs requested, however.
The suit is a continuation of last year’s case on the same grounds, in which the court found that while there was serious cause for alarm concerning the reliability and security of Georgia’s voting system, it was too late to do anything about it for the 2018 elections. This time around, the court was far less amenable to the state’s position that basically amounted to utter denial that there was anything wrong.
United States District Judge Amy Totenberg’s order includes harrowing details of voting machine malfunctions, vulnerabilities, and other irregularities. The evidence she references demonstrates, with excruciating clarity, that Georgia’s 2018 election was plagued with serious irregularities caused by the Diebold AccuVote’s DRE electronic voting machine that is used statewide.
Worse, state officials continued denying that there was anything wrong with the machines, calling threats to its election system security “fantasy” in 2018. In 2019 they deemed such as “speculative,” even in light of, as Totenberg pointed out, coverage by major media, state cybersecurity studies, and official government reports.
“…[I]n ‘real life,’ this played out with the United States’ July 2018 criminal indictment of a host of Russian intelligence agents for conspiracy to hack into the computers of various state and county boards of election and their vendors as well as agents’ efforts during the 2016 election to identify election data system vulnerabilities through probing of county election websites in Georgia and two other states,” her order states.
Vulnerabilities in the Diebold AccuVote’s DRE were famously revealed in 2006 by cyber expert and “ethical hacker” Harri Hursti. Hursti found that it was possible to infiltrate the machines, even years in advance, potentially leaving them “incurably compromised.” At the time, a state expert called it “one of the most severe security flaws ever discovered in a voting system.”
Not long after Hursti’s discovery, the company issued a security patch to fix the problem. Unfortunately for Georgians, Totenberg points out, theirs was not among the jurisdictions that took advantage of it.
“There is no evidence that Georgia ever implemented the software patch or made any upgrades to protect the integrity of its DRE machines.”
This vulnerability is the tip of the iceberg. In 2018, an expert witness for the plaintiffs, Dr. Alex Halderman, testified that a virus could surreptitiously steal votes from one candidate without being detected. Halderman said that a person with a single voter access memory card could spread malware to the DREs, stopping the machine from counting votes. He also said that an attacker could use an unsecure election management system to access the ballot programming files and piggyback on the pre-election programming process, spreading “malicious software to the voting machines across all jurisdictions.”
Halderman also demonstrated for the court that the machines could be hacked remotely.
Toterberg took note of the July 2019 Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report that said Russian government operatives had scanned all 50 states’ elections infrastructure and researched election-related websites, voter ID info, election system software, and election service companies. Furthermore, Russians successfully penetrated the voter registration databases and accessed voter registration data in Illinois and at least one other state.
The judge’s painstaking catalog of testimony from voters presents more shocking evidence.
Dozens of voters testified about serious irregularities and problems they experienced while trying to vote. Most alarming is the testimony of those who witnessed self-casting ballots and their candidate selections flipping after they made their selection.
In all, 18 voters testified that their candidate selection changed after they’d chosen one. Many reported the problems to poll workers on election day.
The vast majority said that they selected Democrat Stacey Abrams for governor, and the machine automatically switched their vote to Republican Brian Kemp, now Georgia’s governor. Several had to choose Abrams multiple times before the machine accepted their vote. Many only noticed the change when they reviewed the ballot after filling it out. One woman said her entire ballot had switched her votes to Republican candidates.
Voters reported similar candidate switching by the machines in the races for Lt. Governor, Governor, and Insurance Commissioner.
In light of the foregoing, it comes as no surprise that Abrams has recently launched an initiative to protect the vote.
I am excited to announce the launch of #FairFight2020, a comprehensive initiative to staff, fund, and train voter protection teams on-the-ground in battleground states across the country.— Stacey Abrams (@staceyabrams) August 13, 2019
Join our fight to protect the vote at https://t.co/kwO6JZ0kHE. pic.twitter.com/ymf3rSf5GD
Other issues included machines that broke down, causing wait times of up to several hours to cast a vote and a voting machine–one person observed–that said it had not counted any votes at the end of the election.
The state separately had problems with its voter rolls. People reported being sent to the wrong polling place, told that they’d already voted when they hadn’t, and had the wrong address listed.
It all paints a picture of an election that was plagued with serious problems and potentially entirely corrupted, either by old, outdated machines and software (the DREs still run on Windows 2000), or the outside influence of bad actors.
Although the court expressed serious reservations about the functionality and reliability of the Diebold machines, it declined to require the state to use paper ballots in the upcoming elections, because it has already passed legislation and awarded a contract to a company that will implement a barcode ballot marking system (BMD) in time for the 2020 presidential primaries. “Not surprisingly, the State therefore has no backup plan for the DREs in the event of emergency or a systemic failure,” Totenberg wryly noted.
The court required the state to come up with a default–presumably paper ballots–plan in case the new system is not in place in time.
Georgia is specifically prohibited from using the DRE system again.
“The Court’s ruling prohibits any continued use of the GEMS/DRE system past the completion of the 2019 election cycle.”
Totenberg also required the state to fix the problems with its voter rolls.
Claire Goforth is a Jacksonville, Florida-based journalist covering politics, culture, justice, and unicorns. Her work has appeared in publications ranging from regional alt-weeklies to Al Jazeera.