By JEFF AMY (Associated Press)
ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia election officials said Wednesday that they would need six to nine months to install new software and hardware to update the state’s voting system to protect against security flaws, pushing back against calls to update the system before the 2024 election cycle.
“It’s really not an upgrade,” state Deputy Elections Director Michael Barnes said of the work needed on 30,000 voting machines. “This really would require us to fully rebuild the system.”
Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has said the state must wait until 2025, but critics continue to pile on, with Lt. Gov. Burt Jones and the state Republican Party joining the chorus in recent days. They say waiting until after next year’s presidential election would leave the voting equipment open to attack.
A group called the Coalition for Good Governance has been suing to throw out the state’s electronic ballot marking system. The coalition and the Morgan County Democratic Committee asked the State Elections Board on Wednesday to let counties use hand-marked paper ballots when county officials believe there’s been a security breach. The board rejected that proposal as beyond its legal authority but created a committee to propose rules or laws for reporting security breaches.
Barnes told the board Wednesday that the state’s poll pad system, which poll workers use to check in voters and provide them with ballots coded to electronic cards, is incompatible with the new software. Barnes also said counties will need to obtain new computer equipment.
State Elections Director Blake Evans told the board that the state will pilot the new system during some city elections in November, assuming poll pad compatibility problems are solved.
Barnes said the state has to start designing ballots for the March presidential primary in December, meaning it would have roughly only a one-month window to install software and new hardware after the November pilot.
The vulnerabilities in the Dominion Voting Systems equipment were identified by J. Alex Halderman, an expert witness in the coalition’s lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Georgia’s election system. Halderman has said there’s no evidence the vulnerabilities were exploited to change the outcome of past elections.
The U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency last year published an advisory based on those findings that urges election officials to take steps to mitigate the risks “as soon as possible.”
One issue is a computer forensics team hired by allies of former President Donald Trump who traveled to Coffee County in south Georgia in January 2021. They accessed voting equipment and copied software and data. Evidence shows that material was uploaded to a server and accessed by an unknown number of people.
“Voters can’t wait. America can’t wait,” Jeanne Dufort of the Morgan County Democrats told the board Wednesday in arguing for her proposal. “The path to the 2024 presidential election runs through Georgia. It is unfathomable why anyone would refuse to protect our elections if they had the power to act.”
Charlene McGowan, the chief lawyer for secretary of state’s office, downplayed risks.
“This equipment has now been safely used for the past four years and in two statewide elections,” she told the board.
She and other election officials argue that any attacks are “operationally infeasible” because people would have to physically access large numbers of voting machines.
“The impact of any potential attack is limited to a single device at a time,” McGowan said.
Former U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, the lieutenant governor and the state Republican Party all attacked the decision of Raffensperger, a fellow Republican, in recent days.
The state Republican Party earlier this month rolled out a platform demanding hand-marked and hand-counted ballots, as well as letting individual counties opt out of using Dominion machines. The platform is fueled by disproven Trump-backed conspiracy theories that machines were used to steal the 2020 election from Trump.
“It’s unacceptable that our state’s top elections official has failed to address known vulnerabilities in our voting machines for two years,” said Loeffler, who now funds a conservative political group. “But it’s incomprehensible that he has now announced, to every criminal and malign foreign actor, that the security flaws will not be fixed for another two years.”
Although Raffensperger won his Republican primary against a Trump-backed opponent, Trump continues to attack him.
“The recent politicized attacks criticizing the security of our system are being made by those who want to sow distrust in the integrity of our elections and cast doubt on the accuracy of the results,” McGowan said Wednesday.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed a quote to Marilyn Marks. It was said by Jeanne Dufort.
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