Handling of Georgia election breach investigation questioned

Coffee County allegations were revealed to election officials in February
Fulton County residents use voting machines to cast their ballotst on the floor of State Farm Arena during the fourth day of early voting in Georgia, Thursday, October 15, 2020.  (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

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

Fulton County residents use voting machines to cast their ballotst on the floor of State Farm Arena during the fourth day of early voting in Georgia, Thursday, October 15, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

A recording first surfaced six months ago claiming that a team copied “every piece of equipment” in Coffee County’s elections office after the 2020 election, but it wasn’t Georgia investigators who confirmed that confidential voting data had been taken.

Instead, it took a lawsuit by private citizens to find documents showing that allies of then-President Donald Trump and their computer experts gained access to sensitive files in the rural South Georgia county.

Critics of Georgia election officials say the secretary of state’s office has been slow-walking the breach investigation as it fights a court case alleging that equipment manufactured by Dominion Voting Systems is vulnerable to insider attacks and hacks. The investigation has been pending for months, and few witnesses have been questioned.

State election officials disagree, saying they’re still gathering evidence and there’s little threat to Georgia’s voting system after several people working for Sidney Powell, an attorney for Trump, copied election files on Jan. 7, 2021. They then distributed the data to conspiracy theorists who deny the results of the presidential election, which Trump lost.

Similar incidents have resulted in indictments in Colorado and an attorney general’s investigation in Michigan.

While the Georgia secretary of state’s office says it’s investigating, prosecutors in Fulton County moved quickly after the GBI opened a criminal investigation on Aug. 15.

A special grand jury in Fulton that’s investigating the 2020 election has requested the testimony of Powell and subpoenaed documents last week from SullivanStrickler, the Atlanta company she hired to copy the data in Coffee County.

 Poll workers unpack voting machines while setting up the Briarlake Baptist Church polling center in preparation for the election Tuesday.  STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Credit: Steve Schaefer

Marilyn Marks, a plaintiff in the election security lawsuit against Georgia, said Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office failed to adequately investigate “the most massive voting system heist that I’ve ever heard of.”

Documents disclosed through subpoenas indicate that SullivanStrickler copied a trove of data from an election server, ballot scanners and memory cards that store votes. An attorney for SullivanStrickler has said the firm was preserving election records under Powell’s direction.

“They absolutely fell down on the job and covered up an enormous security breach,” said Marks, executive director for the Coalition for Good Governance. “They didn’t want to find out because they have been saying for years that this is a reliable, trustworthy system. They knew if they were to tell people what really happened, people’s faith in the system would be crushed.”

Gabriel Sterling, interim deputy secretary of state, said Marks is trying to undermine public confidence in Georgia’s voting system to support her lawsuit’s goal of holding elections using paper ballots filled out by hand rather than printed by computers.

“This isn’t about the machines. This is about individuals who did the wrong thing. They will be investigated, and they will be punished,” Sterling said. “We are taking the necessary methodical investigative steps. Unlike Marilyn Marks, we have a responsibility to give a good case to the State Election Board and potentially a local district attorney to prosecute.”

The 2020 election results have been upheld by recounts, court cases and investigations. Democrat Joe Biden defeated Trump, a Republican, in Georgia by about 12,000 votes.

Clues in Coffee County

There were many signs of mischief in Coffee County long before the revelation that local election officials allowed allies of Trump and tech experts to make illicit copies of sensitive election information.

The secretary of state’s office opened an investigation in December 2020 of Coffee County’s handling of the recount and an incident when the county’s election director, Misty Hampton, made a YouTube video alleging that she could switch votes, a video that also displayed an election server password taped to her monitor. The State Election Board last year referred the case to the attorney general’s office for civil proceedings.

Then after Hampton resigned last year, her successor reported to the secretary of state’s office that he had found the business card of Cyber Ninjas CEO Doug Logan at the base of Hampton’s monitor. Cyber Ninjas conducted a Republican ballot review pushed by Trump backers in Maricopa County, Arizona, and emails show that the team that copied Coffee County data communicated with Logan.

Later, the secretary of state’s office confiscated Coffee County’s main elections server because its password had been changed and officials couldn’t access it. It’s unclear who changed the password.

In late February this year, Marks disclosed a recorded phone call with Scott Hall, a bail bondsman and election skeptic, in which he said that he and others had copied data and ballots in Coffee County. The secretary of state’s office said it opened an investigation in mid-March.

“It should be a swift, immediate response and reaction,” said Gregory Miller, co-founder of the Open Source Election Technology Institute, an organization that researches ways to increase election security and transparency. “When this stuff gets out in the wild, you are greatly increasing your threat risk. That has to be unacceptable.”

Expert witnesses in Marks’ lawsuit say data taken from election computers could be used to create hacks or malware that could be used to manipulate election results. A report from the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency released in June said that voting touchscreens have security vulnerabilities, but there’s no evidence they’ve been exploited.

But state election officials say those risks are minimal in a real-world election because it would be difficult to infect more than one voting machine at a time, and security precautions are designed to prevent wrongdoers from gaining access to voting equipment.

Pace of the investigation

The secretary of state’s inquiry into Coffee County took time because investigators struggled to examine the county’s election server after its password was changed, according to an affidavit last month by Ryan Germany, general counsel for the secretary of state’s office.

Investigators wanted to examine the server to determine whether the claims were true before interviewing witnesses, Germany said. Eventually, they were successful in gaining access to the server and plan to question witnesses.

In the meantime, the secretary of state’s office targeted Marks by serving her with a subpoena last week seeking her communications with Coffee County officials, Trump supporters and news media.

Sterling said if Marks was so concerned about election security, she would have alerted authorities about her call with Hall when she recorded it in March of last year. The secretary of state’s office has said it didn’t learn about the call until Marks’ attorneys questioned Sterling about it during a deposition in February.

Marks said she immediately informed her attorneys about the call last year, and Hall’s rambling claims didn’t initially seem credible. The call was eventually disclosed through her lawsuit following allegations of similar election data copying by some of the same individuals in other states.

Marks said Sterling and the secretary of state’s office have consistently dismissed allegations of wrongdoing in Coffee County. Soon after the secretary of state’s office opened its investigation, Sterling said, “There’s no evidence of that. It didn’t happen,” during an event at the Carter Center in April.

The Coffee County case has become part of this fall’s campaign for secretary of state.

Bee Nguyen, a Democrat running against Raffensperger in this year’s election, attacked him last week for the pace of the Coffee County investigation, saying his handling of the case is “unacceptable” and that he hasn’t been transparent.

Raffensperger’s campaign responded that Nguyen was “parroting 2020 election denier talking points” to distract attention from a faltering campaign.

The story so far

What happened: Supporters of then-President Donald Trump and tech experts from the Atlanta firm SullivanStrickler copied data from a Coffee County election server, memory cards, ballot scanners and other equipment on Jan. 7, 2021.

The latest: Critics say the secretary of state’s office hasn’t thoroughly investigated the incident, but state election officials say they’re conducting a serious criminal inquiry.

What’s next: A Fulton County special grand jury investigating the 2020 election has sought the testimony of Trump attorney Sidney Powell and subpoenaed documents from SullivanStrickler.