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Election officials in Georgia discuss breach and security measures

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ATLANTA (AP) — The Georgia State Election Board held a meeting Wednesday to reassure board members and the public that the state’s elections remain safe following the disclosure of a voting equipment violation in one county.

The meeting included a presentation on state electoral law, an explanation of how the state’s voting machines work, and a description of post-election testing. It also included a report of voting equipment breakage in rural Coffee County.

“I think what happened in Coffee County was despicable,” said Chief Executive William Duffey, a retired federal judge, after the meeting. If the investigation finds evidence of crimes, the penalties should be substantial “to let people there and in other counties know we’re not going to put up with it,” he said.

While acknowledging the serious concerns raised by the breach, board members said they remain confident in the state’s electoral system.

Sara Tindall Ghazal, the state’s executive Democratic Party, said elections must balance three “sometimes competing interests” – safety, accessibility and efficient administration.

“Georgia’s system reflects an attempt to balance these issues and interests,” she said. “I have faith in our election officials and in our constituents to ensure that our elections are smooth and safe and that the outcome reflects the will of the voters.”

A computer forensics team hired by allies of then-President Donald Trump traveled to the elections office in Coffee County, about 200 miles southeast of Atlanta, on Jan. 7, 2021, and made full copies of data and software on voting machines, documents and witness statements identified as were created in response to subpoenas in a long-running court case that questioned the security of the state’s voting machines. Video from an elections office surveillance camera shows that local Republican Party and district elections officials were present when the copying took place.

The video also shows that two men involved in efforts to challenge the results of the 2020 multi-state elections repeatedly visited and spent hours at the Coffee County elections office later that month.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the State Department are investigating the violation. Because similar activities have taken place in other states, the FBI was also contacted, Duffey said. An Atlanta-based prosecutor investigating Trump’s attempts to reverse his loss in the state is also attempting to question those involved.

A group of computer and election security experts earlier this month sent a letter to the state elections commission saying the breach posed a “serious threat” to the state’s electoral system. Experts include academics and former state election officials not linked to efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. They called on the board to replace the state’s Dominion Voting System’s touchscreen voting machines with handwritten paper ballots.

During a presentation on the state’s election law, Matt Mashburn, a member of the Republican Electoral Board, said the board could only order such an emergency measure in cases of “imminent threat to public health, safety or welfare.”

Ballots printed by Georgia’s voting machines contain a QR code — a barcode that’s read and tabulated by a scanner — and a human-readable list that represents the voter’s choices.

Dominion CEO John Poulos appeared via video conference and described how the voting system works. He highlighted various security measures including encryption, passwords, scanned backups of paper ballots, physical seals and public testing before elections. He said it is very important for voters to verify that the list on the ballot reflects their choices.

Blake Evans, director of elections to the secretary of state, guided the board members through the process of the audits Georgia now uses to inspect a statewide race during the even-numbered general election. The “risk-limiting audits” rely on statistics, mathematics and a hand count of a sample of ballots to ensure that the machine-tabulated result is correct.

Critics of voting machines have said studies show voters rarely check their ballots. They say that means there’s no guarantee ballots will accurately reflect voter intent, making any scrutiny meaningless.

J. Alex Halderman, a professor of computer science at the University of Michigan, an expert witness in the voting machine lawsuit that exposed the Coffee County breach, identified what he believes are security flaws in Georgia’s voting machines. The Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency issued a recommendation in June based on Halderman’s findings that included measures to mitigate the risks.

Dominion has commissioned MITER Corporation to conduct its own review of Halderman’s results. A summary of this report considers the identified potential attacks to be “operationally unfeasible”.

The Halderman and MITER reports have been filed under seal in federal court. The Board of Elections unanimously approved a motion to urge the judge overseeing the case to release the reports with the necessary redactions. Board member Ed Lindsey, a former Republican lawmaker, said it would allow the public to “evaluate and trust our voting system.”