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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.
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.’ ”
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.
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.
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.
“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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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)
A study committee of Georgia senators took a decisive step Tuesday toward ending a longstanding and contentious law that regulates how and where new medical facilities are located in the state.
The committee’s decision centers on the 44-year-old Certificate of Need law. It was created to control health care costs and cut down on duplication of services and unnecessary expansions. It determines when, where and if hospitals need to be built. Opponents have said the law prevents competition and enables big hospitals to have a monopoly, often shutting out small and private medical outlets.
On Tuesday, the Senate Study Committee on Certificate of Need Reform effectively said the law needs to be repealed. The committee approved, in a 6-2 vote, nine recommendations.
“Based upon the testimony, research presented, and information received, the Study Committee on Certificate of Need Reform has found that the problem Georgia’s CON law was intended to combat no longer exists,” the report said.
However, the head of the Georgia Alliance of Community Hospitals said Tuesday that repealing the law would be a bad idea.
“It would have a devastating financial impact on hospitals and the quality and access to health care,” Monty Veazey, the alliance’s chief executive, told State Affairs.
Veazey said he has not seen the recommendations yet but his organization has sent its own set of recommendations to the senate and house study committees.
“We believe that the certificate of need really does need some modernization and we look forward to working with the committee to work through those recommendations and see if we can reach a compromise position during the upcoming legislative session,” Veazey said. “We still want to see what the House committee recommends before moving forward.”
Here’s what the senate study committee recommends, according to a draft:
- Repeal CON requirements for obstetrics services, neonatal intensive care, birth centers and all services related to maternal and neonatal care across Georgia.
- End requirements for hospital-based CON on Jan. 1, 2025.
- Reform CON laws to eliminate CON review for new and expanded inpatient psychiatric services and beds that serve Medicaid patients and the uninsured.
- Repeal all cost expenditure triggers for CON.
- All medical and surgery specialties should be considered a single specialty, including cardiology and general surgery.
- Multi-specialty centers should be allowed, particularly in rural areas.
- Remove CON for hospital bed expansion.
- Revise freestanding emergency department requirements such that they must be within 35 miles of an affiliated hospital.
- Remove CON for research centers.
The committee will present its recommendations to the Georgia General Assembly when it reconvenes in January.
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ATLANTA — The first step in the 2023 electoral redistricting process occurred Monday when Sen. Shelly Echols, R-Gainesville, chair of the Senate Reapportionment and Redistricting Committee, released a draft proposal of new Senate district maps.
Last month, U.S. District Judge Steve Jones ordered Georgia to redraw its state House, Senate and congressional district maps, adopted in 2021 by a majority-Republican-led Legislature, after finding they violated the Votings Rights Act by diluting the power of Black voters. The Georgia General Assembly is charged with submitting new maps to comply with Jones’ order by Dec. 8, and will be meeting in an eight-day special legislative session to do so, starting on Wednesday.
The proposed Senate maps would create two Black-majority voting districts while eliminating two white majority districts in metro Atlanta now represented by Democrats. The districts of state Sen. Elena Parent, chair of the Senate Democratic caucus, and Democratic Sen. Jason Esteves, a freshman, would become majority-Black if the redrawn maps make it through the redistricting process, a change that could invite considerably more primary challenges.
The proposed maps do not significantly alter the district lines for Sen. Valencia Seay, D-Riverdale, and Sen. Marty Harbin, R-Tyrone, whose districts Jones ruled did not comply with the Voting Rights Act. It will be up to Jones to decide if the new maps pass muster.
As it stands, the proposed Senate map will leave Republicans with a 33-23 advantage in the Senate.
On Wednesday legislators will plunge into their redistricting work during a special session at the Capitol. In addition to the state Senate maps, lawmakers must also redraw electoral maps to create Black majorities in one additional congressional district in west-metro Atlanta, and in five additional state House districts in Atlanta and the Macon-Bibb County area.
The proposed Senate maps (and all proposed maps to be submitted by legislators) are available on the Legislative and Congressional Reapportionment Office’s website. Written comments can be submitted (and viewed) by the public through the portal available on the Georgia General Assembly website. Most of the reapportionment and redistricting committee’s hearings are open to the public; the daily legislative schedule is available here.
“The committee encourages public participation and values the input of the community in this vital democratic process,” Echols said in a statement released on Monday.
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