As Georgia's top elections official runs for governor, a federal judge said the state has stalled too long in the face of "a mounting tide of evidence of the inadequacy and security risks" of its voting system.
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Secretary of State Brian Kemp, a Republican, is in the midst of a closely watched race against Democrat Stacey Abrams, a former state House minority leader who's trying to become the country's first black, female governor. He has repeatedly insisted that Georgia's current voting system is secure.
Voting integrity advocates sued last year, arguing that the touchscreen voting machines Georgia has used since 2002 are vulnerable to hacking and provide no way to confirm that votes have been recorded correctly because there's no paper trail. They sought an immediate change to paper ballots for the midterm elections while the case is pending.
U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg declined to grant that request Monday, saying that although voting integrity advocates have demonstrated "the threat of real harms to their constitutional interests," she worried about the "massive scrambling" required for a last-minute change to paper ballots. Early voting starts Oct. 15 for the Nov. 6 midterm elections.
Kemp said in an emailed statement that his office will continue to prepare for "a secure, orderly election in November" and will move forward "to responsibly upgrade Georgia's secure — but aging — voting system."
"As I have said many times over, our state needs a verifiable paper trail, but we cannot make such a dramatic change this election cycle," he said.
Abrams, who was campaigning Tuesday with former President Jimmy Carter, did not specifically reference the judge's ruling in an emailed statement.
"As the founder of a nonprofit dedicated to registering voters and as the former House Democratic Leader, I know Georgians are hungry for leaders who will make sure every voice can count at the polls," Abrams said. She promised that as governor, she would "continue to ensure our elections are safe, secure, and accessible."
Georgia is among five states, along with more than 300 counties in eight other states, that exclusively use touchscreen voting machines that provide no paper record, according to Verified Voting, a nonprofit group focused on ensuring the accuracy of elections.
Elections experts said the judge's criticism is unlikely to influence voters' decisions in the gubernatorial race. Democrats will likely use it in mailers or television ads, perhaps even adopting some of the judge's language, but most voters have already made up their minds, said Emory University political science professor Alan Abramowitz.
"It certainly doesn't help Brian Kemp," he said, but added, "I don't think it's going to have a big effect one way or the other."
Kemp campaign spokesman Ryan Mahoney didn't respond to an email Tuesday seeking comment on what the ruling says about the two-term secretary of state's leadership abilities at a time when he's seeking a higher leadership position.
Totenberg chastised the state, saying it had been slow to respond to "serious vulnerabilities of its voting system," as well as software and hardware issues that have long been evident, and said "further delay is not tolerable ..."
The judge noted a general consensus among cybersecurity experts and federal officials about the insecurity of electronic voting machines with no paper record. She pointed to a Sept. 6 report from the National Academy of Sciences that says all elections should be conducted with "human-readable paper ballots" by 2020, with every effort made to use them in this year's general election.
"Advanced persistent threats in this data-driven world and ordinary hacking are unfortunately here to stay," she wrote, adding that state elections officials "will fail to address that reality if they demean as paranoia the research-based findings of national cybersecurity engineers and experts in the field of elections."
Kemp, who rejected federal offers of assistance with election system security in 2016, established a commission earlier this year to look into a change. Last month he called for proposals to implement a system with voter-verifiable paper records in time for the 2020 presidential election.
Meanwhile, lawyers for the state filed a notice Tuesday that they intend to appeal Totenberg's denial of their request to dismiss the case entirely.
Coalition for Good Governance executive director Marilyn Marks and attorney David Cross, who represents a small group of voters, said that even though the judge declined their paper ballots request they were encouraged by the tone of her ruling. Both said they're reviewing the decision to decide whether to appeal.
Totenberg also said the state did not seriously address the impact of a breach of a state election server in its arguments.
Security experts last year disclosed a gaping hole that exposed personal data for 6.7 million Georgia voters, as well as passwords used by county officials to access election-staging files. That hole still wasn't fixed six months after it was first reported to election authorities.
Kemp's office blamed the Center for Elections Systems at Kennesaw State University that managed the system. Ultimately, officials there reported to his office.