Georgia election security chief splits time with second state job

Fulton County residents use electronic voting machines to cast their ballots on the floor of State Farm Arena during early voting in Georgia in October 2020.  (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

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Fulton County residents use electronic voting machines to cast their ballots on the floor of State Farm Arena during early voting in Georgia in October 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Merritt Beaver makes $320K as IT head for two agencies

The person responsible for election cybersecurity and technology in Georgia divides his time between two government agencies and collects $320,000 in annual pay, according to records obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Merritt Beaver works as chief information officer for both the secretary of state and insurance commissioner, an arrangement that allows him to do both jobs — and collect two paychecks.

Beaver earns more as a contractor than all but a handful of state government employees, making more than Gov. Brian Kemp’s $175,000 per year and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s $123,000 salary.

Government officials say taxpayers are getting their money’s worth with Beaver, whom they credit for improving technology services and saving hundreds of thousands of dollars through upgrades.

But critics say Georgia needs a dedicated full-time employee for the important job of protecting elections from potential threats such as hacking and foreign interference. A report by a federal cybersecurity agency in June found several security vulnerabilities in the state’s voting touchscreens.

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Merritt Beaver is chief information officer for both the Georgia secretary of state's office and insurance commissioner's office. His combined annual pay is $320,000. Photo credit: LinkedIn

Credit: LinkedIn

Merritt Beaver is chief information officer for both the Georgia secretary of state's office and insurance commissioner's office. His combined annual pay is $320,000. Photo credit: LinkedIn

Credit: LinkedIn

Combined ShapeCaption
Merritt Beaver is chief information officer for both the Georgia secretary of state's office and insurance commissioner's office. His combined annual pay is $320,000. Photo credit: LinkedIn

Credit: LinkedIn

Credit: LinkedIn

“He’s just trying to handle way too much with the time he has,” said David Cross, an attorney who questioned Beaver about his dual roles during a deposition for an ongoing lawsuit over election security. “Georgia has very complicated electronic voting equipment. That creates a lot of cybersecurity issues that someone in the state needs to be on top of.”

Beaver said he’s vigilant about election security and built a team in the secretary of state’s office to handle many day-to-day operations. Twenty-seven positions in the secretary of state’s office report to Beaver, according to its organizational chart provided to the AJC through the Georgia Open Records Act.

“It’s not like I’m in government to get a boatload of money. I enjoy the work, and somebody has to step in and take the job. If you don’t, the government gets weak,” Beaver said. “My mantra is, if security is not a pain, we’re not doing our job. Security can’t be easy.”

Beaver earns $120,000 a year from the secretary of state’s office and $200,000 annually from the insurance commissioner’s office, government records show. The secretary of state’s office reduced his pay from its previous level of over $200,000 when he took on the insurance commissioner’s job in fiscal 2020. Beaver has worked for the secretary of state since 2014.

Interim Deputy Secretary of State Gabriel Sterling said chief information officers are in high demand in the private sector, and the government needed to offer adequate compensation.

“The state is getting a very good deal. We’re having high-level CIO support and direction. He’s a Swiss Army knife, as far as I’m concerned,” Sterling said. “I don’t think it’s fair to say, ‘He’s part-time and therefore he’s not doing good work.’ ”

Beaver saved taxpayers $80,000 by replacing the secretary of state’s phone systems, and he also manages security vendors and oversaw the creation of a data center to secure and store information, Sterling said.

As a contractor, Beaver is paid more than he would earn as a state employee, in part because contractors don’t receive benefits including pensions and health insurance that cost the government an additional 68% of an employee’s salary. But if Beaver were a state employee, he would only be able to be paid for one job instead of two.

Sterling also temporarily received higher pay by working as a contractor to oversee the installation of Georgia’s voting system in 2020, bringing in $200,000 per year without benefits compared with his $114,000 government salary that included benefits.

Sterling returned to government employment when his contract expired after 2020. An audit this year said state employees such as Sterling aren’t allowed to conduct contract negotiations that result in higher pay for themselves.

At the insurance commissioner’s office, Beaver saved taxpayers $350,000 a year by eliminating the need for two floors of office space that previously housed computer servers, spokesman Weston Burleson said.

Beaver also installed Wi-Fi internet for the first time, required secure access for workers logging in from home and revamped the agency’s website.

“We were literally in the dark ages over here. We thought it was worth bringing someone in to modernize our systems,” Burleson said. “He brought this agency into the 21st century. He’s done a great job, and it’s been a great bargain.”