Two years after Russian election meddling, many US states are ill-prepared to prevent a repeat in the midterms. Georgia, with its electronic-voting-only system, is one of the most vulnerable targets.
The Russian election hacking controversy came to Madison, Georgia one Friday afternoon in July. Scrolling through the news feed in her small real estate office inside a narrow red-brick house on Main Street, Jeanne Dufort's interest was piqued by a federal indictment against Russian hackers who had targeted election websites in Georgia amid a plan to interfere in the 2016 election.
"That hit home in a really, really specific way," Dufort said in a recent interview in a coffee shop in Madison, a community of some 4,000 residents and the seat of Morgan County, 70 minutes east of Atlanta. "We have been hearing about Russians and hacking and Facebook for a long time," she said. But a federal indictment citing Russian meddling in Georgia announced by Deputy US Attorney General Rod Rosenstein elevated the lingering issue to a new level for Dufort, a member of the Morgan County Democrats. "That felt really personal."
What made the revelation particularly relevant for Dufort was the fact that Georgia is one of only five US states that relies entirely on electronic voting machines that lack any auditable paper trail. Georgia was first to adopt direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting machines in 2002, as one consequences of the 2000 Florida presidential election controversy involving flawed paper ballots. In next month's midterm elections, the state's 6.8 million voters across more than 2,600 precincts are slated to cast their ballots via 28,000 DRE voting machines that function like a touch-screen computer. But experts say such a system is deeply problematic.
'Every effort made for paper ballots'
Last month the US National Academy of Sciences issued a lengthy report stating that "every effort should be made to use paper ballots in the 2018 federal election" and recommended that "voting machines that do not provide the capacity for independent auditing — i.e., machines that do not produce a printout of a voter's selections that can be verified by the voter and used in audits — should be removed from service as soon as possible."
Adding another political twist to Georgia's election controversy is the fact that the state's secretary of state, Brian Kemp — who is in charge of elections — in 2016 rejected Washington's offers to bolster the state's election security. Now Kemp, a Republican who supports Trump, is running for governor in a competitive and closely watched race against Democrat Stacey Abrams in what security experts say is essentially an unauditable election.
When the 29-page federal indictment did not detail which entities in Georgia had been targeted, it left Dufort wondering whether Morgan County was impacted and what could be done to strengthen the election system. So she quickly got in touch with Dutton Morehouse, the head of the county Democrats, and they decided to demand what to them seemed the only responsible remedy to bolster what they view as Georgia's lax election security: a switch from electronic voting machines to paper ballots.
"We just wanted to wave a torch here and say this is an issue that needs to be dealt with and if you guys on the macro level won't deal with it, we are going to deal with it here and show you that it can be dealt with," said Morehouse.
When state officials, soon after the indictment, announced that Morgan County was not implicated in the Russian hack, it did little to dissuade Dufort and Morehouse.
That's because, while Russian hackers had not visited the election websites of Morgan County, population 18,000, they had been on the websites of Fulton and Cobb counties, the state's largest and third largest, both located in metropolitan Atlanta, with a combined population of 1.8 million. Neither of the sites were hacked.
'Sharing a needle in an alley'
While Dufort and Morehouse were working in Madison to push the county to switch to paper ballots, election integrity advocates in the capital, Atlanta, sued to force the issue on a state-wide level.
One of the people testifying in support of the switch was Richard DeMillo, a computer scientist and former dean of computing at Georgia Tech University. In a recent interview in his Atlanta university office he offered a damning take on the state's election system, which he considers the US's worst and easiest to hack.
"There are so many ways in. Anyone that wanted to disrupt the election wouldn't have much trouble doing it," said DeMillo. As evidence of what he calls a dangerously flawed system that is managed incompetently, DeMillo points to 2016, when an unsecured server exposed the personal data of millions of Georgia voters on the internet. He also faults election officials for transferring election data via modem, which is easily hackable, and for transmitting electronic ballots to counties by loading them on a USB drive and moving them from a system that is connected with the internet to election management systems.
"It's like sharing a needle in an alleyway," said DeMillo. "Whatever virus was on that internet-facing computer is now on that USB drive and has just infected the election management system." He said that the system is simply not trustworthy. "And if it is not trustworthy, you can't trust the results."
That's why as a temporary fix until the state gets a new election system, "our proposal was to do what Germany and Ireland and a lot of Western democracies do, which is to use paper," said DeMillo.
But last month a US district judge in Atlanta refused to order Georgia to switch to paper ballots, arguing this could create chaos weeks before the election. She upheld the use of electronic voting machines essentially because of time constraints. On the merits of the case she sided with the plaintiffs, calling the system "dated," "vulnerable" and criticizing officials who had "buried their heads in the sand."
Confidence in the system
Richard Barron, Fulton County's election chief, was one of the officials defending electronic voting machines in court. In a recent interview in his downtown Atlanta office, he dismissed the warnings by election security advocates as not "real-world scenarios."
"It doesn't keep me up at night," said Barron. "I am confident in the system."
He added there were many safeguards in place to prevent tampering with the system and maintained that the physical security surrounding the machines was strong. He accused the plaintiffs of sowing discord.
And despite her ruling in the state's favor, Barron also had harsh words for the judge. "She seemed to have her mind made up as soon as that session started that morning, I thought. I was disappointed: She didn't seem impartial at all."
Barron's message to voters is simple: Disregard the controversy over election security. "Georgia voters should still be confident in the voting that we have," he said. "If I wasn't confident in it, I wouldn't want to use the system."
A win for Russia?
Back in Madison, Barron's advice did nothing to assuage the concerns of Dufort and Morehouse. But after their motion to switch to paper ballots in comparatively small Morgan County was denied — narrowly — by county officials who did not want to overrule the state, it looks like the election in all of Georgia will be taking place as planned via electronic voting machines.
As a consequence, Dufort said she will vote absentee with a paper ballot, so there is at least a physical record of her vote. Asked how she felt that her state remains in the spotlight for what many say remains a flawed election system, Dufort said: "It's particularly embarrassing to be in Georgia right now." And she added that, in a way, the election mess meant that Russia had already won, because voters could not trust the state's election system.