Suspicions about election equipment followed Trump’s loss in the 2020 presidential election, when his supporters claimed there was fraud and blamed voting machines manufactured by Dominion Voting Systems. Recounts, court cases and investigations have upheld the election results showing Joe Biden beat Trump. Dominion is seeking $1.6 billion in a defamation lawsuit against Fox News over unfounded claims about its equipment.
Election integrity activists say the Coffee County case shows that Georgia’s touchscreen-based voting system is vulnerable to insider attacks, a weakness that could enable wrongdoers to manipulate results.
State election officials have said Georgia’s elections remain secure, and it would be difficult to hack election computers during an ongoing election.
Paul Maggio, chief operating officer for SullivanStrickler, wrote in an email to Powell that he had gathered election data and records from Coffee County.
“Sidney, everything went smoothly yesterday with the Coffee County collection. Everyone involved was extremely helpful,” Maggio wrote on Jan. 8, 2021. “We are consolidating all of the data collected and will be uploading it to our secure site for access by your team. Hopefully we can take care of payment today.”
Text messages disclosed through the subpoenas indicate that local officials helped the computer experts copy election information, giving them access to the county election office. They included election board member Eric Chaney, former county Election Director Misty Hampton and former county Republican Party Chairwoman Cathy Latham, who also attempted to cast Georgia’s votes for Trump as a fake elector for the Georgia Republican Party on Dec. 14, 2020.
A hard drive produced from Maggio’s subpoena includes dozens of files and folders copied by SullivanStrickler, such as the election management server, memory cards, ballot scanners and ballot images. The secretary of state’s office replaced the county’s server last year.
Powell, Maggio, Chaney, Hampton and Latham didn’t return emails and phone calls seeking comment. Hampton resigned last year following allegations that she had falsified timesheets.
“Rogue election officials will not be tolerated in Georgia,” said Mike Hassinger, a spokesman for the secretary of state’s office. “Prior to this latest disclosure, the Georgia secretary of state’s office and the State Election Board had already looped in appropriate authorities, including criminal law enforcement agencies, to assist in the investigation into the alleged unlawful access in Coffee County. That investigation continues, and any wrongdoers should be prosecuted.”
Marilyn Marks, a plaintiff in the lawsuit that sought the subpoenas, said the documents are evidence that Georgia’s election system has been compromised, increasing the risk of malware and hacks in upcoming elections. She said the secretary of state’s office should switch from its voting system that uses touchscreens to print paper ballots.
“It is imperative that they turn their attention to hand-marked paper ballots using emergency procedures for November because the entire state of Georgia’s software is out there in the wild,” Marks said. “This takes away all of their excuses to stick with ballot-marking devices.”
A report by the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency found in June that voting touchscreens used in Georgia have several security vulnerabilities, though there’s no evidence they’ve been manipulated so far.
Malicious code that changed votes could be spread if someone gained physical access to voting touchscreens or the election management system computers that program them, the kind of access gained in Coffee County after Georgia’s election results had already been certified.
“You just have to find one county that’s willing to let you come in,” said David Cross, an attorney for the plaintiffs in the case. “The only defense the state has is to say, ‘Don’t worry, nobody can exploit the vulnerabilities.’ We now know that’s just not accurate.”
The story so far
What happened: A team of computer experts working for Sidney Powell, an attorney for former President Donald Trump, copied election information from servers and ballot tabulators in Coffee County, about 200 miles south of Atlanta.
The latest: Documents produced from subpoenas in an election security lawsuit confirm details of the breach on Jan. 7, 2021. The GBI has opened a criminal investigation.
What’s next: Investigators plan to analyze the Coffee County election server and interview witnesses.