A group of activists in Georgia has gone to court with a simple request to election officials: in the name of election security, do away with electronic voting entirely and let the more than 6.1 million voters in the upcoming November 2018 election cast ballots entirely by paper. Georgia is just one of five American states that use purely digital voting without any paper record.
As part of this ongoing federal lawsuit, known as Curling v. Kemp, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp's office says that such a change would be "reckless" with the election less than 60 days away. Plus, modifying the voting process would be too expensive, too unwieldy, and, in the end, not worth it.
"Plaintiffs raise only spectral fears that [Direct Recording Electronic machines] will be hacked and votes miscounted," John Salter, an attorney representing the state, wrote in a recent court filing.
"A theoretical possibility that a voting machine somewhere might be susceptible to tampering is outweighed by the State's legitimate interest in protecting its elections from the mad scramble that would certainly ensue if the Plaintiffs' motions were granted."
So at 10am ET Wednesday, in a federal courtroom in Atlanta, lawyers from both sides are set to argue before US District Judge Amy Totenberg.
Root of the problem
Even before Curling began as a lawsuit, notable questions had been raised about Georgia's election security.
In August 2016, a 29-year-old federally employed former cybersecurity researcher named Logan Lamb wrote a script to search the Kennesaw State University's Center for Election Systems. He was shocked by what he found.
As Kim Zetter reported nearly a year later in Politico:
Within the mother lode, Lamb found on the center's website a database containing registration records for the state's 6.7 million voters; multiple PDFs with instructions and passwords for election workers to sign in to a central server on Election Day; and software files for the state's ExpressPoll pollbooks—electronic devices used by pollworkers to verify that a voter is registered before allowing them to cast a ballot. There also appeared to be databases for the so-called GEMS servers. These Global Election Management Systems are used to prepare paper and electronic ballots, tabulate votes, and produce summaries of vote totals.
The files were supposed to be behind a password-protected firewall, but the center had misconfigured its server so they were accessible to anyone, according to Lamb. "You could just go to the root of where they were hosting all the files and just download everything without logging in," Lamb says.
Soon after, a lawsuit followed in state court asking the court to annul the results of the June 20, 2017 special election for Congress and to prevent Georgia's existing computer-based voting system from being used again. By August 2017, the case was moved to federal court in Atlanta.
The state tried to get the case dismissed, but the judge ruled in the plaintiffs' favor last month.
The Wednesday hearing will mark the first substantive in-person showdown to be adjudicated.
"I think as the Supreme Court has pointed out many times, the electoral process in the country is one of, if not the most, important institutions that we have," David Cross, one of the attorneys representing Donna Curling and other plaintiffs in the case, told Ars on Tuesday.
The DC-based attorney, who will argue on behalf of Curling in court on Wednesday, noted that numerous federal officials (including the head of the Department of Homeland Security) have said that not being able to audit election results is a "national security concern."
"It's unthinkable to me as someone who grew up in the South that any voter in the country would have to cast their ballot... Where at the end of the day no one has any idea that if the folks who take office are the people who were voted for," Cross continued. "And that’s unthinkable in today's environment."
The Georgia Secretary of State's office did not respond to Ars' Tuesday request for comment. But the lawyers representing Fulton County, one of the defendants, noted that Georgia voters can ask for a paper ballot or vote absentee if they so choose.
"Plaintiffs cannot possibly show irreparable harm when they may easily cast the paper ballot they perceive as more secure," Attorney David Lowman wrote for Fulton County.
Plus, even if the Peach State somehow could get enough paper ballots, it doesn't have enough optical scanners to read them.
"The cost of procuring and deploying adequate numbers of OS units for the November 2018 election would carry excessive and unbudgeted cost," Lowman also wrote. "It is even questionable whether enough compatible OS units are available as they are no longer manufactured."
In its formal legal response to Secretary Kemp's office, attorneys representing the Coalition, slammed the state's lack of effort.
"They seek to burden—and potentially eviscerate—the right to vote simply to preserve a system that indisputably cannot ensure a fair, honest, and efficient election at a time when sophisticated hacking efforts are inevitable," they wrote.
If Judge Totenberg wants to rule before the upcoming election (where among other contests, Secretary of State Brian Kemp himself is running for governor), she'll have scant time to do so.