N.B.: The following is a guest post from State Representative Scott Holcomb (D-Atlanta). Holcomb is one of the leading voices on election integrity in Georgia. – TLA
Our federal government needs to speak with one voice about the security of our elections. That isn’t happening.
And our state needs to take action, too. That’s not happening either.
We all know about President Trump’s multiple flip-flops last week. One moment he was agreeing with Putin and patting him on the back, and the next day he said he misspoke. And then he changed his story again. It’s head spinning when it should be simple. We must acknowledge how foreign governments, such as Russia, have sought to influence our elections. And we must ensure that it never happens again.
The evidence on what happened is overwhelming. The report issued by the intelligence community last year was conclusive: Russia intervened to benefit Trump. And this threat of foreign influence continues. The current Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats recently said that Russia is an “aggressive foreign actor” who undeniably interfered in our 2016 election and will continue its efforts to undermine our democracy. He said the lights are blinking red and Russia’s efforts are ongoing. And now that we are heading into a trade war with China, that potential threat exists, too. American businesses have been dealing with Chinese hackers for years.
Members of Congress from both parties support the conclusion reached by our intelligence community. And it is a conclusion that demands we take action to secure our democracy—particularly in Georgia where we have vulnerabilities in our election system.
These vulnerabilities became very clear in August 2016 when Logan Lamb, a cybersecurity researcher, discovered that, due to a misconfiguration on a server, he could easily download records for all of Georgia’s 6.7 million registered voters, documents with instructions and passwords for workers to use to log in to a central server on election day, and software files for the devices used by workers to verify a voter’s registration. He also gained access to databases used to prepare ballots, count votes, and summarize vote totals. Not only was Georgia’s door not locked: it was left wide open. And this happened again in March 2017—during the peak of the hotly contested race for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District.
The misconfigured server, managed by the Center for Election Systems, reportedly has been vulnerable since 2014, but sufficient action to eliminate the vulnerabilities was not taken. Our Secretary of State’s Office has insisted that our election systems weren’t vulnerable to Russian interference in 2016 and Georgia was not even targeted. However, paragraph 75 of the indictment against 12 Russian intelligence officers revealed last week stated that Russia did, in fact, target Georgia. Whether our election systems were hacked and manipulated remains unknown, but it is clear that if Russia wanted to do so, they could have easily accomplished their mission.
Given Director Coats’ report that Russia is continuing its efforts to interfere with our elections to undermine our democracy (which is one of Russia’s foremost strategic goals), we must take steps to secure our election system. Currently, Georgia is one of five states that relies on paperless electronic voting computers—touchscreens that top cybersecurity experts say are a serious vulnerability. These touchscreen computers, which use Microsoft 2000, an operating system that has not even been supported by Microsoft since 2010, do not have a paper component. Therefore it is impossible to conduct a recount or audit of election results. The computers tell you what the computers tell you, and there is no independent record (or paper) to double-check accuracy. And, as we now know, no steps were taken to secure these machines before 2016, and little (if anything) has been done since.
The best path forward is to move to a paper-based system. Cyber-security experts recommend hand-marked paper ballots with optical scanners to read the ballots and tally the results. This process would eliminate unsecure computers and ensure that, if necessary, we could conduct accurate recounts with the paper ballots.
Securing our democratic processes from foreign interference will require bipartisan support and cooperation because, ultimately, any hostile interference by foreign actors or countries such as Russia affects every person, regardless of political party. Georgia’s entire election system was undeniably vulnerable in 2016, and we cannot let that stand for 2018. As a constituent told me recently, “I should only have to focus on the integrity of the person I am voting for, not the integrity of the system I am using to vote.” Surely we can agree on that.