Election officials tout Georgia’s secure voting system, but some eyebrows are raised

ATLANTA — Election security was a hot topic at the Capitol on Wednesday, as the secretary of state’s office held a press conference detailing its ongoing efforts to vet voting machines and software, while senators in an ethics committee hearing grilled elections officials over potential vulnerabilities with the state’s election equipment.  

Gabriel Sterling, chief operating officer for the secretary of state's office, at the Capitol in Atlanta on Nov. 1, 2023. (Credit: Jill Jordan Sieder)

Inside the Capitol, Gabriel Sterling, chief operations officer for Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, began the conference brandishing a $2,700 restitution check from Sidney Powell, former attorney to former President Donald Trump, who pled guilty last month to six misdemeanor charges related to her role in the Fulton County election interference case involving Trump and 16 other defendants. 

Calling the check “a small down payment on what should be owed to the voters and people of Georgia,” Sterling said. “The lies that (Powell) perpetrated undermined people’s faith in our systems and our country. … This check shows you, ‘Yes, I lied.’ ” 

FILE - Sidney Powell, right, speaks next to former Mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani, as members of President Donald Trump's legal team, during a news conference at the Republican National Committee headquarters on Nov. 19, 2020, in Washington. Powell has pleaded guilty to reduced charges over efforts to overturn Donald Trump’s loss in the 2020 election in Georgia. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

Powell was one of many Republicans in Trump’s circle who made false claims that Dominion Voting Systems rigged the 2020 election.  She paid computer experts to break into Coffee County’s election equipment after the election, according to the Fulton County indictment. Her check is to be used to replace the hacked equipment.

“Georgia does a fantastic job of running elections,” Sterling said, adding that “the 2020 election was the most secure election in American history, and the 2022 election was more secure than that.”

He recounted what the secretary’s office is currently doing to prepare for the 2024 election, including working with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Georgia Emergency Management Agency “to inspect every location that holds our physical equipment,” launching a new, more secure voter registration system, and piloting a new version of software for the Dominion Voting System in five Georgia counties now running municipal elections.

“We’re taking responsible steps to keep our elections secure,” said Sterling. “There are going to be those who oppose the steps that we take and only want to see failure … We need to move on. It’s not about stolen elections.” 

Meanwhile Wednesday, lawmakers were gathering for a  Senate Ethics Committee meeting across the street from the Capitol. 

The ethics committee meeting focused on the existing and new Dominion software and voting equipment. Georgia started using Dominion voting systems in 2019.

Senate Ethics Committee Chair Max Burns, R-Sylvania. (Credit: Georgia Senate)

Ethics Committee Chair Max Burns, R-Sylvania, began the meeting, held in a hearing room filled to capacity, by saying, “I want to say for the record I have complete confidence in the Georgia voting system as it exists today. … I recognize that not everyone shares that level of confidence.” 

Charlene McGowan, general counsel for the secretary of state’s office, told the committee that in elections currently happening in 122 counties, Georgia is using the existing Dominion voting system that features touch screen devices that print out paper ballots that voters can review before submitting them for scanning and verification. This gives voters confidence and provides a paper trail for future auditing, she said. 

McGowan said the pilot program the state is now using to test new Dominion software on voting machines in five counties must by law undergo a rigorous process of both state and federal certification before the voting system can be used statewide. 

Several senators expressed frustration that the voting machines will not be updated with new software in time for the 2024 election. Raffensperger in July issued a plan to secure the 2024 election using the existing voting system, and has said updating the voting machines with new software will be completed by January 2025. 

McGowan said updating and testing 40,000 machines, which must be done manually, will take time to do thoroughly and responsibly.

Others had questions about the security of the existing voting software and paper ballots.

Charlene McGowan, general counsel for the secretary of state's office (center) speaks to members of the Senate Ethics Committee on Nov. 1, 2023. Robert Giles of Dominion Voting Systems (L) and Blake Evans, director of elections for the secretary's office, also testified.
Charlene McGowan, general counsel for the secretary of state's office (center) speaks to members of the Senate Ethics Committee on Nov. 1, 2023. Robert Giles of Dominion Voting Systems (L) and Blake Evans, director of elections for the secretary's office, also testified. (Credit: Jill Jordan Sieder)

Sen. Rick Williams, R-Milledgeville, asked if the QR code printed on the paper ballot could be read by a regular smartphone. Blake Evans, director of elections for the secretary of state, said no, ballot codes can only be read by Dominion machines. Williams said voters are concerned that QR codes could be exploited and erode their anonymity. 

Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, said his “average Joe” constituents don’t trust the election process, and that potential security risks posed by QR codes don’t help. 

Sen. Greg Dolezal, R-Cumming, peppered the two elections officials and Robert Giles, vice president of certification for Dominion Voting Systems, with a series of sharp questions.

Sen. Greg Dolezal (Credit: Georgia Senate)

“When were you made aware of the nine vulnerabilities?” Dolezal asked, referring to a report by a University of Michigan computer scientist last year that identified nine potential security flaws in the Dominion machines the state currently uses.

Evans said he found out around the time of that report, adding that all of the flaws had since been “mitigated” by his team.

“Why were those steps not in place in 2022?” Dolezal asked.

“They were,” Evans replied. “The 2022 election was secure and successful.”

Dolezal then complained to Giles about the new Dominion software, which would not initially work with the poll pads that election workers use to check in voters at precincts.  

“We’re your largest customer and you gave us software that was incompatible with our poll pads, incompatible with Georgia elections? …That’s unacceptable by any standard of professionalism in the software business,” he said.

Giles said the poll pad issue had been fixed relatively quickly. McGowan said the issue has not delayed the federal certification of the new voting system, as Dolezal had implied.

Sen. Harold Jones II, D-Augusta, asked what the secretary has done to make voting machines and elections more secure since 2022.

Evans said the elections office has spent two years upgrading the voter registration system, and that it is now federally compliant. He added that he knows of no instances of machines “flipping votes,” and assured lawmakers that because none of the machines are connected to the internet, “you can’t gain access to the election management server or make adjustments to a ballot-marking device.”

The only risks are physical risks, Evans said, such as if someone gained access to a physical device. He noted that Georgia’s ballot marking devices and servers are locked when not in use, and also have built-in features that detect and alert if they’ve been broken into.

“We share the same objective,” Burns, the committee chair, said to the elections officials near the end of their testimony. “We want secure, safe elections in Georgia that our voters have confidence in. … We hope we’ll do continuous improvement to our systems. That’s vital.” 

Burns said he’d like to see Raffensperger, who was reportedly in south Georgia attending a Rotary Club meeting, attend the committee’s next election security-related hearing. 

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Have questions, comments or tips on elections in Georgia? Contact Jill Jordan Sieder on X @journalistajill or at [email protected].


Header photo: Gabriel Sterling, chief operating officer for the Georgia Secretary of State's office, displays a check for Sidney Powell's court-ordered restitution to the Secretary of State's office as a requirement of her guilty plea during a press conference about election security at the Capitol in Atlanta, Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2023. (Credit: Arvin Temkar/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)