Fearing Hacking, Georgia Advocates Want Paper Ballots

(Bloomberg) -- Georgia voters fearing Russian-style meddling with the U.S. state’s electronic voting machines may find out soon whether they’ll be going back to paper ballots in a November election with one of the nation’s most closely watched gubernatorial races.

A good-government group and several voters claim in a lawsuit that Georgia’s paperless system is at such great risk that the Republican-led state is violating residents’ constitutional rights by failing to fix the problem, even after Congress and the Justice Department flagged the system as ripe for abuse.

U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg, an appointee of former President Barack Obama, held a hearing Wednesday in Atlanta that lasted into the evening. She said she’ll issue an order today or Monday on the group’s request for a paper ballot.

"We have heard repeatedly from all our top officials that Russia is going to keep doing this -- it’s urgent we do whatever we can right now to minimize any problems," said Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, who isn’t involved in the suit. "We haven’t acted fast enough to upgrade our voting equipment."

Georgia’s election databases and 27,000 touchscreen voting machines could be hacked to erase valid registrations, add fake voters and even switch votes to decide which candidate wins, the group said in the lawsuit. Georgia is an inviting target, they say, because its machines are easy to hack and the state has a large number of registered voters -- about 7 million.

"Georgia’s voting system is a catastrophically open invitation to malicious actors intent on disrupting our democracy," the group claims.

Georgia is balking at the voters’ proposal to replace the current system with paper ballots in all 159 counties before Nov. 6. Secretary of State Brian Kemp said in a recent court filing that the group’s worries are based on "paranoia" and the speculation of "so-called" experts.

"There is no ‘Paper-Ballot Fairy’ who, with magic wand at ready, can save plaintiffs’ half-baked ‘plans’ from devolving into fiasco," Kemp said in a filing. "Plaintiffs’ ‘cure’ is worse than the disease."

Georgia’s governor race has captivated the politically minded. The Republican is the secretary of state, a Donald Trump supporter who vowed in the primary to round up “criminal illegals” and haul them to the border in his pickup truck. The Democrat is an African-American woman who called for the carvings of Confederate icons sandblasted from Stone Mountain. The contest between Kemp and Stacey Abrams is a reflection of the political divide that exists around the country.

Kemp’s press office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Nonprofit Group

The group of voters is joined in the case by a small nonprofit called the Coalition for Good Governance, which describes itself as a nonpartisan organization "focused on election transparency and verifiability."

Three of the voters tapped John Carlin, the chair of Morrison & Foerster’s global risk and crisis management practice who was once the Justice Department’s highest-ranking national security lawyer and chief of staff to Robert Mueller when he led the FBI. The lawyers from the Washington office of the San Francisco-based firm are representing the voters for free.

The Coalition and other voters are represented by Seattle-based Robert McGuire and three other law firms.

In November, Mueller, now the special counsel investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, said a group of 13 Russians had sought “to identify vulnerabilities” in voting systems in several Georgia counties. The state is one of five with "the most serious election security vulnerabilities," according to a July report by congressional Democrats.

Georgia’s system, put in place in 2002, leaves no paper trail. The software hasn’t been supported by Microsoft Corp. since 2013. And the hardware? It’s similar to what you’d find "in a very low-end general-purpose personal desktop computer in use in the early 2000s," the group says.

The cost of printing ballots alone "would soar by orders of magnitude," the state said in a filing, adding that a massive deployment of optical scanner machines would also be needed.
"At this late date, converting to an exclusively paper-ballot election cannot be done without compromising the public interest," the state said.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.