Voting machines on trial: Are Georgia elections secure?

Judge to decide on Dominion touchscreen voting
Voters cast ballots on Georgia's voting machines at State Farm Arena in downtown Atlanta in October 2020. (John Spink /



Voters cast ballots on Georgia's voting machines at State Farm Arena in downtown Atlanta in October 2020. (John Spink /

Disputes over voting machines and election security culminate in a federal trial this week, a test of whether Georgia’s Dominion election system is dangerously vulnerable to programming errors or hacks that could throw an election.

At the dawn of the 2024 presidential election year, the trial will seek to answer fundamental questions about the role of technology in elections:

Does the risk that voting machines could botch an election infringe on fundamental voting rights? Are touchscreens that print out paper ballots safe?

The lawsuit asks the court to bar the Dominion touchscreen voting system, which Georgia bought for $107 million in 2019, alleging it violates rights of free speech and equal protection guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

The long-running case was originally filed over six years ago by liberal-leaning voters after Democrat Jon Ossoff lost a special election for the U.S. House. But it has now become a cause for conservative activists who distrust Georgia’s voting machines since Republican President Donald Trump’s loss in 2020.


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U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg is preparing for an overflow crowd in her Atlanta courtroom when the trial begins Tuesday, with live audio broadcast to another room for those who can’t squeeze in.

“Georgia is already a tinderbox, and by leaving an unreliable, unverifiable and unauditable voting system in place, that tinderbox is going to be incredibly dangerous come November,” said Marilyn Marks, executive director of the Coalition for Good Governance, a plaintiff in the case.

Election officials defend Georgia’s voting system, saying it’s battle-tested and safe after weathering a barrage of attacks from conspiracy theorists seeking to undermine public confidence.

There’s no indication that Georgia’s voting machines have ever been hacked during an election. Three vote counts showed that Democrat Joe Biden defeated Trump by about 12,000 votes in 2020, and investigations have repeatedly debunked suspicions of fraud.

“The allegations that plaintiffs make ... follow typical election denier tactics: misstate, obfuscate and sensationalize because there is no evidence of any Georgia voter ever having an issue voting or having their vote accurately counted on our current system,” said Mike Hassinger, a spokesman for the secretary of state’s office, the defendant in the case.

The trial will feature evidence of the election breach in Coffee County in January 2021, when computer experts hired by Trump allies copied Georgia’s voting software, a move that plaintiffs say increased the likelihood that future elections could be compromised.

The Coffee County incident only came to light in 2022 when the Coalition for Good Governance gathered evidence and questioned witnesses in the case. In August, Fulton County prosecutors charged four people involved in the breach as part of their racketeering indictment against Trump, including attorney Sidney Powell, whose organization paid tech experts $26,000 for the incursion.

The plaintiffs plan to use the breach in Coffee County to show that security precautions failed and that Georgia’s election software fell into the hands of election deniers across the country. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has said it’s impractical to upgrade the software on tens of thousands of election computers until after this year’s elections.

Credit: Coffee County video

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Credit: Coffee County video

Dominion says its voting equipment remains secured by layers of safeguards, procedures and physical protections overseen by local election officials.

Hand counts and audits have repeatedly proven that Dominion machines produce accurate results, including a historic statewide hand audit in 2020 of every single paper ballot in Georgia,” a company spokesman said. “No credible evidence has ever been presented to any court or authority that voting machines did anything other than count votes accurately and reliably in all states, including Georgia.”

Dominion won a $787.5 million settlement from Fox News last year in a defamation lawsuit alleging the news outlet promoted false conspiracy theories about voting machines.

One of the expert witnesses for the plaintiffs, University of Michigan computer science professor Alex Halderman, is expected to testify about vulnerabilities he found when given access to Georgia’s voting touchscreens, called ballot-marking devices, or BMDs.

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Those weaknesses were later confirmed by the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency, which recommended rigorous audits, physical protections of election equipment and updates to outdated software.

“Maliciously engineered software — of the kind to which BMDs and other computerized components of a voting system are susceptible — is capable of systematically pushing election results toward or away from a given candidate,” Halderman wrote in a court declaration.

The judge overseeing the case has voiced concerns about security weaknesses, but she has denied the plaintiffs’ demands for the state to switch to paper ballots filled out by hand instead of by machine.

“These risks are neither hypothetical nor remote under the current circumstances,” Totenberg, an appointee of President Barack Obama, wrote in an October 2020 court order. “The plaintiffs’ national cybersecurity experts convincingly present evidence that this is not a question of ‘might this actually ever happen?’ — but ‘when it will happen,’ especially if further protective measures are not taken.”

Voting machine programming errors have previously caused inaccurate vote counts in Georgia and elsewhere. In DeKalb County, a manual recount changed the results in a County Commission race in 2022. And in Northampton County, Pennsylvania, votes in an election for state appeals court judges were flipped in November.

Once before, Totenberg required Georgia to replace its “unreliable and grossly outdated” voting system. In 2019, she prohibited further use of Georgia’s 20-year-old electronic voting machines, which didn’t print a paper ballot, forcing the state to install the Dominion technology it had already purchased in time for the 2020 presidential primary.

Totenberg wrote in a court order in the fall that she doesn’t have the power to order the state to switch its statewide voting system to hand-marked paper ballots, even if the plaintiffs are successful during the trial.

But she suggested security improvements, such as eliminating computer-readable QR codes printed on paper ballots that are currently used to count ballots, holding more election audits and implementing cybersecurity measures.

The trial, which is expected to last 12 days, will include dozens of potential witnesses, including cybersecurity experts, election officials and concerned voters.

Raffensperger won’t have to testify, according to a ruling the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued Friday. The appeals court shielded Raffensperger from having to defend his prior statements about Georgia’s voting system, finding that high-ranking officials aren’t compelled to testify.

After the trial, Totenberg could issue a ruling in the following weeks, but it’s unlikely that she could impose drastic remedies ahead of November’s election. U.S. Supreme Court precedent limits court-ordered changes soon before an election.