Election security trial becomes a magnet for unfounded 2020 fraud claims

Case over security vulnerabilities diverges into allegations about presidential election
A voter makes her choices on a voting machine at State Farm Arena in 2020. An election security trial in federal court is considering whether Georgia's touchscreen voting system is secure. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

A voter makes her choices on a voting machine at State Farm Arena in 2020. An election security trial in federal court is considering whether Georgia's touchscreen voting system is secure. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

A federal trial over the security of Dominion voting machines in Georgia wasn’t supposed to encompass unproven accusations of wrongdoing in the 2020 presidential election.

But it didn’t take long for conservatives’ endless quest to find fraud in Donald Trump’s loss to intrude.

Since a rogue plaintiff hired a new lawyer who also represents one of Trump’s co-defendants in a separate case, the trial has included questions about “pristine” counterfeit ballots, claims of ballot tampering and unsubstantiated allegations of wireless access to voting machines.

Then the right-wing website The Gateway Pundit amplified testimony about security vulnerabilities, “My Pillow Guy” Mike Lindell aired allegations of fraud on his show, and an activist who wants to rid Georgia of all electronic voting equipment latched onto the case.

Conservatives’ belief that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump found new life in the election security case, originally filed primarily by liberal voters 6 1/2 years ago. The main plaintiffs argue electronic voting equipment is unsafe for future use but disagree with the notion that it’s been manipulated so far.

Three vote counts showed that Joe Biden defeated Trump in Georgia in 2020, and multiple investigations have countered allegations of illegal ballot collection, dead voters and manipulation.

Credit: FILE

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Credit: FILE

But the trial is a golden opportunity to question witnesses under oath, including state investigators and election officials.

Election skeptics were especially invigorated by testimony from University of Michigan computer science professor Alex Halderman, who used a pen to reach a button inside a voting machine, putting it in “safe mode” and allowing him to alter its programming.

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“This trial is the ultimate soap opera,” said Amber Connor, a conservative Atlanta voter who has observed much of the trial and supports efforts to eliminate Georgia’s voting technology. “If we’re worried about voting technology, we should be worried about these machines and the tabulators. I was hoping people from both sides of the aisle would come together to lock down every vote.”

The interests the plaintiffs diverged last month when one of the plaintiffs, Ricardo Davis, hired his own attorney, David Oles, a district chairman for the Georgia Republican Party.

Davis is a co-founder, along with Garland Favorito, of VoterGA, a group behind a pending lawsuit seeking to inspect Fulton County absentee ballots to try to find fakes. A judge dismissed the case in 2021 after investigators couldn’t find illegal ballots, but the Georgia Court of Appeals revived the lawsuit last year.

While the primary plaintiffs in the current election security case are asking the judge to bar touchscreen voting machines, Davis and Oles want to rid most technology from elections in hopes of moving to a system where ballots are filled out by hand and counted by humans instead of scanners.

Oles, a divorce attorney, also represents one of the 19 people who were indicted in the Fulton County conspiracy case against Trump, Stephen Cliffgard Lee, an Illinois pastor charged in connection with intimidation of election worker Ruby Freeman.

Outside of court, Oles said his interest in the case is untainted by partisanship. He declined to say whether he’s representing Davis for free.

“The principle is fair and accurate elections,” Oles said.

Liberals who are supporting the primary plaintiffs in the case say Davis and Favorito are trying to co-opt the election security trial to instead focus on fraud.

“It creates a huge distraction and takes away from the importance of what we’re fighting,” said Aileen Nakamura, a member of the Coalition for Good Governance, an election advocacy group that is a plaintiff in the case. “Our case is based on experts and evidence. It’s not about past election outcomes. We want to make sure the results are something we all can agree on.”

Davis rarely attended the trial until this past week, drawing concern from U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg, an appointee of former President Barack Obama, who questioned his interest in the case.

“What I want to see is professional administration of elections,” Davis, chairman of the conservative Constitution Party of Georgia, said outside of court.

In the meantime, Favorito passed notes to Oles as his “litigation consultant,” drawing a rebuke from Totenberg. She granted a request last week from Davis to bring a laptop into federal court so he could both attend the trial and work at the same time.

Favorito, who is not a plaintiff in the case, recently appeared on Lindell’s online show to broadcast his unwavering belief in illegally duplicated ballots and wireless access to voting machines, claims that lack evidence. Lindell, the CEO of My Pillow and a Trump supporter, has amplified unfounded allegations of election fraud for years and is facing a $1.3 billon defamation lawsuit from Dominion.

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

“We are just trying to save Georgia. All we really want is a secure 2024 election, and we are fighting election officials in the judicial branch and in the legislative branch,” Favorito told Lindell about his role in the trial.

Favorito has made allies with the Georgia Republican Party since Trump lost the 2020 election, and he has rallied crowds at Trump campaign events.

Lindell encouraged Favorito and his followers.

“Keep fighting down there. What amazing reports coming out of Georgia,” Lindell said. “It’s a crack in the ice. We’re breaking through and the dominoes will fall all over the country.”

Georgia bought its statewide election equipment from Dominion Voting Systems for $107 million in 2019. The technology uses touchscreens to print out a paper ballot, which the plaintiffs argue is vulnerable to tampering.

Election officials and Dominion say the technology is secure and has never been breached during an election, though tech experts hired by Trump supporters copied the state’s voting software in Coffee County in January 2021 with help from local supporters in the election office.

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.

Dominion said in a statement that Halderman’s courtroom demonstration of hacking into a touchscreen doesn’t reflect reality.

“To be clear, what Mr. Halderman is describing could not be done by a foreign actor sitting overseas,” a Dominion spokesman said. “Rather, it would require a criminal conspiracy between an army of U.S. election officials and thousands of in-person American voters. These hypothetical criminals would need unfettered physical access to every election system they want to compromise, during (not after) the election. This is implausible and conspiratorial.”

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