Georgia voting equipment breach at center of tangled story

ATLANTA (AP) — The story of breached voting equipment in one of the nation’s most important political battleground states involves a surety on bail, a prominent attorney linked to former President Donald Trump’s attempts to canceling the 2020 presidential election and a cast of characters from a rural county that rarely attracts the attention of outsiders.

How they all came together and what that could mean for voting security in the upcoming midterm elections are issues tangled in a lawsuit and state inquiries that have prompted calls to ditch the machines altogether.

Details of unauthorized access to sensitive voting materials in Coffee County, Georgia became public last month when documents and emails revealed the involvement of high-profile Trump supporters. It was also when he came to the attention of an Atlanta-based prosecutor who is conducting a separate investigation into Trump’s efforts to reverse his loss in the state.

Since then, revelations about what happened in the county of 43,000 people have raised questions about whether the Dominion Voting Systems machines used in Georgia have been compromised.

The public disclosure of the breach began with a rambling phone call from an Atlanta-area bail bondsman to the head of an election security advocacy group involved in a long-running lawsuit targeting voting machines. of State.

According to a court recording filed earlier this year, the bail guarantor said he chartered a jet and was part of a computer forensics team at the Coffee County Elections Office when they “imaged every hard drive in every piece of equipment”.

It happened on Jan. 7, 2021, a day after the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and two days after a runoff election in which Democrats won Georgia’s two U.S. Senate seats.

The trip to Coffee County, about 200 miles south of Atlanta, to copy data and software from election equipment was led by attorney Sidney Powell and other Trump allies, according to reports. depositions and documents produced in response to subpoenas.

Later that month, security camera footage shows two men who took part in efforts to question the 2020 election results in several states spent days going in and out of the county elections office of Coffee.

Footage also shows local election and Republican Party officials welcoming visitors and giving them access to election materials. The video appears to contradict statements by some officials about their apparent involvement.

The new information has made Coffee County, where Trump won nearly 70% of the vote two years ago, a focal point of concerns about the security of voting machines. Although there is no evidence of widespread problems with voting equipment in 2020, some Trump supporters have been spreading false information about the machines and the election results.

Election security experts and activists worry that state election officials have acted quickly enough in the face of what they see as a real threat.

The copying of the software and its availability for download means that potential malicious actors could create exact copies of the Dominion system to test different types of attacks, said University of California, Berkeley computer scientist Philip Stark, a witness plaintiffs’ expert in voting machines. court case.

“It’s as if bank robbers had an exact replica of the safe they were trying to break into,” he said.

Stark said the risks could be minimized by using hand-marked paper ballots and rigorous audits. Dominion says its equipment remains secure.

Marilyn Marks, executive director of the Coalition for Good Governance, the group that has sued the state’s voting machines, said the state was slow to investigate. She was on the other end of receiving the phone call from the bail bondsman.

The state, she said, has “repeatedly looked the other way in the face of flashing red lights of serious electoral system security issues.”

State officials say they believe the electoral system is secure. All Coffee County election materials that have not yet been replaced will be replaced before early voting begins next month, the secretary of state’s office said Friday.

State officials also noted that they were inundated with false claims after the 2020 election.

“In retrospect, you can say, well, what about this, this and that,” said Gabriel Sterling, a senior official in the Georgia secretary of state’s office. “In real time, no, there was no reason to think that.”

In late January 2021, weeks after the computer forensics team visited, security video shows an investigator from the Secretary of State’s office arriving at the Coffee County Elections Office. He and the Election Supervisor enter the room that houses the Election Management System server. Seconds later, Jeff Lenberg, who was identified by authorities in Michigan as part of an effort to gain access to voting machines there, is seen walking out of that room.

When asked if Lenberg’s presence in the room with sensitive election materials raised concerns for the investigator, Secretary of State’s office spokesman Mike Hassinger said the investigator was investigating a matter unrelated to him and did not know who Lenberg was.

Security video also showed another man, Doug Logan, in the office in mid-January. Logan founded a company called Cyber ​​Ninjas, which conducted a discredited review of the 2020 election in Maricopa County, Arizona. In May 2021, the new Coffee County Supervisor of Elections raised concerns with the Secretary of State’s office after Logan’s business card was found by a computer. The Election Supervisor’s concerns were forwarded to an investigator, but he testified that no one ever contacted him.

Hassinger said the secretary of state’s office responds to allegations when they are raised, but “information about unauthorized access to Coffee County election materials has been withheld” from local officials and others. .

Much of what is known has been uncovered through documents, security camera footage and depositions produced in response to subpoenas in the lawsuit filed by individual voters and the advocacy group electoral security. The lawsuit alleges Georgia’s touchscreen voting machines are insecure and seeks to force the state to use hand-marked paper ballots instead.

The newly produced evidence of a violation was not the first sign of trouble in Coffee County, which caused headaches for state election officials in the turbulent weeks following the 2020 election. It’s likely that the unrest helped open the door for Trump allies.

In early December 2020, the County Elections Commission refused to certify the results of an automatic recount requested by Trump, saying the electoral system produced inaccurate results. Video uploaded days later showed former county election supervisor claiming election software could be manipulated; as she spoke, the county election management system server password was visible on a note taped to her computer.

In late December, Cathy Latham, the Coffee County Republican Party chairwoman, who was also a fake voter for Trump, appeared at a state legislative committee hearing and again claimed that voting machines don’t were unreliable.

A few days after that hearing, Latham said, she was contacted by Scott Hall, the bail guarantor, who had been a Republican observer during an election recount. Latham testified in a deposition that Hall asked him to put him in touch with the Coffee County Supervisor of Elections (who was later accused of falsifying timesheets and forced to resign).

A few days later, on January 7, Hall met with a computer forensics team from data solutions company SullivanStrickler at the Coffee County Elections Office. The team copied data and software to the election management system server and other voting system components, a company executive said in a deposition. The company said it believes its customers have the necessary permission.

Invoices show the data company billed Powell $26,000 for the day’s work.

“Everything went well yesterday with the Coffee County collection,” the company’s chief operating officer wrote to Powell in an email. “Everyone involved was extremely helpful.”

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