Kemp starts probe after data on Georgia election computer destroyed

Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp

Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp

Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp said Thursday that his office is launching an investigation after data was quietly destroyed on a computer server shortly after a lawsuit was filed seeking to force the state to overhaul its election technology.

The data wipe, first reported by The Associated Press, was revealed in an email sent by a state prosecutor to lawyers representing election transparency advocates who filed the lawsuit in July questioning the security and accuracy of Georgia's election infrastructure.

The documents show the destruction of the data occurred July 7 at the Center for Elections Systems at Kennesaw State University, which runs the state’s election system. The director of the center referred questions Thursday to Kennesaw State’s press office.

The KSU center’s system will be used in the upcoming elections.

KSU represenattives late Thursday issued a statement explaining that the server, which had been examined by the FBI, was wiped so it could be repurposed. School spokeswoman Tammy DeMel said in the statement the FBI made a copy of all of the data on the server before informing KSU it had not been compromised and returning the technology.

DeMel said the university determined the technology on the server had exceeded its life and erased the data to repurpose the device.

“The data and information that was on the server in question has been and is still in the possession of the FBI and will remain available to the parties in the event it is determined to be relevant in the pending litigation,” DeMel said.

In a lengthy statement, Kemp said his office had no involvement in the decision to wipe the server, nor was it notified in advance.

“We will not stand for this kind of inexcusable conduct or gross incompetence,” said Kemp, whose office oversees Georgia’s elections. “Those responsible at KSU should be held accountable for their actions. The Secretary of State’s Office is also coordinating with FBI officials to get our own copy of the data that was erased at KSU.”

The details brought a sweep of reactions from Georgia leaders, from calls to overhaul the state’s election system to pleas for caution. State Rep. Ed Setzler, a Republican who has long advocated for new protections for the electronic-based system, said it’s a reminder that “Georgia is in need of a change.”

Many Democrats said they were outraged by the report. U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson said the “apparent deliberate destruction of evidence” raised questions about the validity of the results in the 6th Congressional District contest in April, a high-profile election for an open U.S. House seat that wound up being the costliest in the nation’s history.

“What used to take place in courthouse basements and backrooms on election night can now be accomplished with a few keystrokes on a laptop computer,” Johnson said. “Unfortunately, my suspicions can never be proven wrong because Georgia election officials deleted and destroyed the evidence.”

Kemp, who is running for governor, said his office stands by the results of previous elections. “Despite the undeniable ineptitude at KSU’s Center for Elections Systems,” he added, “Georgia’s elections are safe and our systems remain secure.”

‘Vulnerable and unreliable’

The KSU center has helped run Georgia's elections for the past 15 years, but it has fallen under increased scrutiny since a private cybersecurity researcher discovered security lapses that could have exposed more than 6.5 million voter records and other sensitive information.

Kemp's office in July decided to eventually move all its elections work in-house and build its own team to run Georgia's elections. At the time, Kemp cited "the ever-changing landscape of technology demands" for the move. His office said this incident is further evidence of the need to move the election system in-house.

The lawsuit was brought by the Coalition for Good Governance and several Georgia voters. Marilyn Marks, the group’s executive director, has said the security lapses show the state’s system is “vulnerable and unreliable” and should not have been used for the 6th Congressional District in June.

Experts say the destruction of the data could hinder the plaintiffs’ case, though it was not immediately clear whether it was a legal violation. A spokesman for the FBI’s Atlanta office declined to comment.

Richard DeMillo, a Georgia Tech computer scientist who has kept tabs on the lawsuit, said the wipe “makes it possible for the (defendants) to make whatever claim they want” about whether Georgia’s most recent elections were compromised by hackers.

“An analysis of the files themselves would be useful in knowing whether election software or databases were altered in any way that would be useful to hackers intent on changing votes,” DeMillo said.

‘Damning indictment’

It’s likely to cause aftershocks at the Georgia Legislature, where a growing number of lawmakers have pushed for paper backups to ballots and other new safeguards. Among them is House Minority Leader Bob Trammell, who said the data wipe was a “damning indictment against our present elections system.”

“For the sake of the integrity of the voting process in Georgia, we must move with immediate haste to replace our old voting machines and system with modern voting machines with an auditable paper trail that cannot be deleted or manipulated,” he said.

A House committee in September began looking at a new election systems, but any decision will likely take a few years and could cost more than $100 million, depending on the type of system officials pick.

Georgia’s current system was considered state-of-the-art when it was adopted 15 years ago but is now universally acknowledged by experts to be vulnerable to security risks and buggy software.

Only a handful of states still use similar electronic systems, which voters know for their digital touch screens. A majority — 41 states — either have or are moving toward voting done entirely on paper or on a hybrid system that incorporates some kind of paper trail.

That could soon change: Voters in Conyers are casting paper ballots along with new voting and tabulating machines as part of a pilot program as they decide on a new mayor and two City Council seats.