Sunlight streams through the windows of the gym as a voter walks away from the voting booths after voting during the Georgia runoff election voting at Henry W. Grady High School on July 24 in Atlanta. (JASON GETZ/SPECIAL TO THE AJC)
Photo: Jason Getz
Photo: Jason Getz

Elections: Georgia counties respond to hacking, security threats

As Georgians prepare to cast their ballots in a nationally watched gubernatorial race, the security and reliability of the state’s election system remains a point of concern for many voters and security experts.

Polls show that a large percentage of Americans believe there’s a concerted effort underway by foreign entities to undermine American Democracy and promote discord, using everything from fake Facebook accounts to Russian Twitter bots. But perhaps nothing strikes fear in the hearts of voters in Georgia and across the country more than the notion that their ballots could be changed by hackers.

VIDEO: Previous coverage of this issue

Critics have raised concerns over the ability to hack the state's current voting system.

In the metro area, elections officials in Fulton, DeKalb, Cobb, Gwinnett, Henry, Clayton and Fayette counties told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution they are working with the Secretary of State’s office to ensure every ballot cast in November is counted and reported accurately. They say their systems and processes are battle tested and secure.

Still, there’s a growing clamor for more precautions.

The state’s weaknesses have been well documented. Georgia uses electronic voting machines and is one of only five states that don’t have paper backups that can be used to audit results.

More than 20 experts from Georgia Tech, MIT, Princeton and other top-tier institutions signed a letter to Secretary of State Brian Kemp last year expressing “grave concerns” about Georgia’s election system and urging the state to adopt paper ballots. That process is underway, but no changes are likely before November.

Also feeding into voters’ apprehension is mounting evidence that Russia attempted to hack into election systems across the U.S. in 2016. Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation found one suspected operative had visited Cobb and Fulton counties’ election websites, though no confidential information was obtained, the Secretary of State’s office said.

Secretary of State Brian Kemp

Russian hackers tried without success to gain access to the private election systems of 21 states, but Georgia was not one of them, Kemp’s office saidStill, some experts say, it’s a matter of time.

Harri Hursti, a data security expert who signed the letter to Kemp, said Georgia’s software is more than 10 years old and “definitely hackable.”

Without a paper trail, it would be very difficult to prove if an election had been tampered with because malware can easily be written to erase itself after completing a task, he and other experts have said.

“If something goes wrong there is no way to audit,” Hursti said.

And Richard DeMillo, the executive director of the Center for 21st Century Universities at Georgia Tech, said he recently attended a conference in which participants figured out how to break into election machines “in very interesting ways.”

“Ways that if I were in the Secretary of State’s office would make me very nervous,” he continued.

Kemp’s duties include overseeing the November election, even though he is on the ballot himself as the Republican gubernatorial nominee. His representatives say there is neither evidence that Georgia’s voting system has been tampered with nor cause for widespread concern.

“Alongside federal, local and private sector partners, we continue to fight every day to ensure secure and accurate elections in Georgia that are free from interference,” Secretary of State spokeswoman Candice Broce said. “To this day, due to the vigilance, dedication and hard work of those partners, our elections system and voting equipment remain secure.”

The voting machines have been tested, as well as the related systems used to tabulate votes, Kemp’s office said. Homeland Security has also held briefings for counties, and the Secretary of State offers training.

Kemp’s office, the General Assembly and a newly formed statewide commission are in the process of mapping out a plan to implement paper balloting before the 2020 presidential election. But the current system of 27,000 touchscreen machines remains in place for the short-term.

“The state is helping counties test the machines regularly to make sure that they operate as designed and that they are accurately counting voter selections,” Broce said.

Of course, as many point out, there have been plenty of problems with elections over the years that have nothing to do with Russians.

MAY 15,2013-ATLANTA: Portrait of Rick Barron at the Fulton County Elections office in Atlanta on Wednesday May 15th, 2013. The Fulton County commission was expected to vote on whether to hire Barron as the county's new elections director. PHIL SKINNER / PSKINNER@AJC.COM Editor's note:CQ, since he doesn't yet have the job I photographed him in the former chief's office where he was waiting to hear to vote. He said however that they would most likely be in executive session during the vote & he would not be there Rick Barron
Photo: David Wickert/AJC Latest News

A cybersecurity researcher in 2016 exposed security vulnerabilities at Kennesaw State University’s Center for Election Systems, which provided logistical support to the state. The problems were serious enough to prompt the state to end its contract.

Also issues have cropped up frequently on the local level, most noticeably in Fulton County. In 2007, records for more than 100,000 voters were found in a dumpster. The following year, it took the county days to finish counting absentee ballots. And in 2012, another presidential election year, the county failed to properly register some voters, forcing 10,000 people to use provisional ballots.

Current Fulton elections director Richard Barron was hired in 2013. He’s said in the past that he was working to update voter rolls, reduce the number of provisional ballots cast and ensure voters are directed to the right polling location.

Regarding the more recent concerns, Barron said a lot of hacks that happen in labs would be much harder in the real world. For example, seals are placed on voting machines, and poll workers check to ensure the seals are unbroken. They also make sure that the serial numbers on the machines match those recorded earlier.

Fulton is among the counties that have asked Homeland Security to review its systems and procedures.

“We made the decision to avail ourselves of their services,” Barron said. “I’m not concerned about the voting system. I think it’s safe and secure.”

Officials from Gwinnett said the county “has never received any notification of an attempting hacking of its elections systems.”

County spokesman Joe Sorenson said Gwinnett uses “physical and electronic measures” to secure machines but did not provide specifics. He said safeguards are adjusted “from time-to-time,” adding that it’s important to note that neither the county’s voting machines nor the machines used to count votes are connected to the internet.

“Gwinnett County takes the security of elections seriously and implements best practices to ensure the integrity of the votes,” Sorenson said in an emailed statement.

Two weeks ago, Henry County officials installed an alarm system at its elections office in McDonough. Elections and Registration director Tina Lunsford said the move was made out of an abundance of caution — not because there’s any information that the county is a target of hacking or voting machine tampering.

“As you start to see more and more come out about the Russians, it’s just another way for us to increase security,” she said.

A U.S. flag stands as a voter participates Tuesday in the Georgia runoff election at the North Fulton Government Service Center in Sandy Springs. (JASON GETZ/SPECIAL TO THE AJC)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Across America, voters are worried. A February 2018 NBC News poll concluded that eight out of 10 Americans are concerned the country’s voting systems are susceptible to hackers, and two-thirds said they fear foreign governments will try to interfere in elections this year.

And many Georgia voters have voiced concerns about election security during county commission meetings and to their local elections boards. Backed by groups like the Coalition for Good Governance, Indivisible Georgia Coalition, Common Cause Georgia and the NAACP, they have tried to make a case for paper ballots sooner rather than later.

Clayton resident Timothy Vondell Jefferson said he is most concerned that the loss of political norms in Washington will have an impact on the integrity of voting in Georgia. He thinks Kemp has declined to resign as secretary of state because Donald Trump – a Kemp supporter – has encouraged leaders to break with tradition and do whatever it takes to win.

“The leader of the country is sending a message that anything goes,” he said.

DeKalb Commissioner Mereda Davis Johnson said she has heard enough to also have worries.

“I’m sure that many people throughout the state would feel much more comfortable with a printed ballot backup to make sure that their vote is counted,” she said. “Because of the allegations of hacking and the intimidation and all other scenarios surrounding our election process, people are concerned. … I just don’t feel 100 percent sure that my vote is my vote.”

Sara Henderson, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, is encouraging residents to vote early if they are worried about tampering.

“Lots of people love going to the polls on Election Day. I am one of them,” she said. “But if your concern is not having that human verifiable piece of paper, then go early-vote or go online and request an absentee ballot.” Early voting is still electronic in most jurisdictions. However, voters who want to use paper can request a mail-in ballot.

Common Cause also has a list of other recommendations it believes will help elections go smoothly, such as hiring enough workers to fully staff polling locations, not assigning voters to new precincts within 60 days of the election, increasing access to early voting and being more transparent about how and why voter roll purges are conducted.

At Johnson’s request, DeKalb commissioners recently delayed a proposal that would have caused some voters in Stonecrest to be sent to a new polling location in November. The change will now happen after the election.

Staff writers Tyler Estep and Arielle Kass contributed to this report.

Staff writers Tyler Estep and Arielle Kass contributed to this report.