Senators press for more election security ahead of Georgia 2024 races

Secretary of State Raffensperger blamed in hearing
Blake Evans, the state elections director, speaks Wednesday during a state Senate Ethics Committee hearing on election security at the Paul D. Coverdell Legislative Office Building in Atlanta. He characterized vulnerabilities in the state’s voting equipment are “hypothetical” because they were identified in a lab environment rather than in a real-world election. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Blake Evans, the state elections director, speaks Wednesday during a state Senate Ethics Committee hearing on election security at the Paul D. Coverdell Legislative Office Building in Atlanta. He characterized vulnerabilities in the state’s voting equipment are “hypothetical” because they were identified in a lab environment rather than in a real-world election. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Georgia senators demanded answers about election security Wednesday, questioning why the state’s voting system won’t be upgraded until after the 2024 elections and criticizing Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.

The senators suggested quicker software updates, an elimination of QR codes on Georgia ballots, security markings on every ballot, and the introduction of paper ballots filled out by hand instead of by voting touchscreens.

During the Senate Ethics Committee hearing, state election officials responded that Georgia’s election technology is secure from tampering as they test equipment ahead of next year’s elections and plan audits afterward.

State Sen. Greg Dolezal, a Republican from Cumming, said the state’s security precautions are inadequate. He said Raffensperger’s office should have worked harder to install a new version of voting machine software by Dominion Voting Systems before next year’s elections.

“Rather than changing the key on the front door, we’re hoping that we catch them before they get out the back door,” Dolezal said.

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

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Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

State election officials said they need to thoroughly test the software update, which includes fixes to potential hacking vulnerabilities, before rolling it out to 40,000 pieces of equipment across the state just ahead of a major presidential election.

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

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Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

“Because our system is not connected to the internet, we can’t just push a button and send the update out. We have to physically touch every piece of election equipment,” said Charlene McGowan, general counsel for the secretary of state’s office. “I have given you 40,000 reasons why we have not been able to do it up to this date. ... We don’t want to needlessly induce more risk when we want our local election workers to succeed.”

Dominion’s voting system, which relies on touchscreens and printed-out ballots, has come under fire since the 2020 election, especially from Republican supporters of Donald Trump following his narrow loss in Georgia. Multiple investigations and recounts have checked the results.

Senators suggested that the voting system upgrade should have been prioritized in March when the U.S. Elections Assistance Commission approved it.

Raffensperger didn’t attend the Senate’s hearing Wednesday as he was traveling to speak to a Rotary Club and visit election offices in South Georgia, an engagement planned before senators requested his presence.

“The person elected to hold that office is a ghost, and today he’s at a Rotary meeting,” said state Sen. Randy Robertson, a Republican from Cataula. “If that Rotary meeting was more important than coming up here and speaking in front of Georgia citizens that are watching this, then that’s his burden to bear.”

The U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency has confirmed vulnerabilities in the version of Dominion software currently in use, but it found no evidence that weaknesses have ever been exploited in an election.

Georgia Elections Director Blake Evans, who represented the secretary of state’s office at the hearing, said that vulnerabilities in the state’s voting equipment are “hypothetical” because they were identified in a lab environment rather than in a real-world election.

“I’ve never had one single election official call me up and say, ‘Blake, I’ve got a problem with my ballot marking device flipping votes,’ ” Evans said. “You can’t gain that level of access to be able to make adjustments to a ballot marking device.”

The software upgrade is being piloted this fall in municipal elections in five counties, but the secretary of state’s office doesn’t plan to expand the update because Georgia law requires a uniform statewide voting system.

Senate Ethics Chairman Max Burns said he wants to move toward putting a security mark on all ballots, update voting equipment as soon as possible and consider eliminating QR codes, which store voters’ choices in computer code but are unreadable to the human eye.

Burns, a Republican from Sylvania, has also proposed a bill that would give voters the option of casting hand-marked paper ballots instead of using touchscreens.

Election legislation could be considered during next year’s legislative session, which begins in January. The state’s presidential primary is scheduled for March 12.

“We don’t have a resolution,” Burns said, “but we’re working toward actions that can hopefully get us to a much better place.”

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