Local election official addresses cybersecurity concerns, shift to new hardware

Bartow may be among first counties to receive new voting equipment

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Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger announced Monday that Denver-based Dominion Voting Systems had been selected as the vendor for the State’s new paper ballot system. The news is especially intriguing for the local community, Bartow County Elections Supervisor Joseph Kirk said, since Bartow is on a shortlist to pilot the new equipment later this fall.

“They’ve had to drop that number down from 12 to six, and we’re on the list of 10 counties that are still in contention to do that,” he said. 

If Bartow is chosen as a pilot site, the County could have the new system online in time for November’s municipal-level elections. If not, he anticipates the equipment being installed by March, just prior to the presidential primaries.

“I should have at least some piece of equipment here in the next month to start demonstrating,” he said.

At this point, Kirk said information is scarce on the new Dominion hardware and software — what's available on the Secretary of State's website is about the extent of it. Nonetheless, he said he’s excited to move forward with the system, which will provide a paper record for every vote cast.

Amidst concerns from local voters last fall about touchscreen calibration, Kirk said the upgrade is certainly welcome.

“That will allow us to do audits after the election and ensure everything is as it should be,” he said. “We expect a lot less issues than we had with our current system in the last couple of years —  because it’s brand spanking new, we shouldn’t see the kind of problems that plagued us in the last election.”

While Kirk said he has “complete confidence” in Bartow’s current voting equipment, he also said he’s optimistic the new system will give the local electorate renewed “peace of mind” about the election process. A wide-scale public education campaign, he added, is planned as the new equipment comes online. 

While the new voting equipment contract might be grabbing all the headlines, it’s not the only elections-related story with potentially major implications for Bartow. United States District Judge Amy Totenberg is expected to rule shortly on whether or not Georgia’s polling places must immediately switch from touchscreens to hand-marked paper ballots for this fall’s elections.

“If we’re not part of the pilot project, I’m not sure how that would work,” Kirk said. “We only have four working optical scanners, because normally those are only used for absentee and provisional ballots. To do a hand-marked paper ballot system well, you need an optical scanner at every single polling place, so that the voter deposits their ballot through the scanner themselves.”

In that scenario, he said voters this fall would have to literally stuff their votes into boxes or bags at the polls, with election officials manually inserting each ballot into an optical scanner — one at a time — back at the office.

“So we’re going to be here until the wee hours of the morning scanning those ballots, if not until the next day,” he said. “And that’s assuming the scanners keep running the whole time to count everything.”

In April, Kirk attended the 2019 Multi-State Information Sharing Analysis Center (MS-ISAC) annual meeting in Denver. There, he did some networking with representatives of the Elections Infrastructure Information Sharing and Analysis Center (EI-ISAC) on cybersecurity best practices.

“They are available to help us respond to any threats as they actually happen,” he said. “I brought all of those services back that they offer. They have partnerships with a lot of vendors to offer us top-notch cybersecurity services at a fraction of the cost to help us protect our elections … Bartow County [Information Services] is onboard with it now and they’re doing tremendous things with it.”

Listening to presentations from some of the top cybersecurity experts in the United States, Kirk said he heard the same central message repeated over and over agin.

“The bad actors are looking for low-hanging fruit,” he said. “They’re looking for people or entities that are not staying up to the times with both best practices and cyber-hygiene.”

As long as officials are doing their basic cybersecurity due diligence — i.e., not sharing passwords across websites or using weak password combinations, in general — Kirk said hackers or others with ill intent are likely to give up and move along to a more accessible target. 

“I think the biggest threat to our election infrastructure right now are people who aren’t doing those cyber-hygiene practices, that aren’t paying attention to the latest threats, that aren’t keeping Windows updated,” he said. “You’d be amazed how much just running those software updates keeps us safe.”

With the switch to a new statewide voting system comes several changes to Georgia’s rules and regulations concerning absentee voting and voter registration procedures. That includes provisions allowing individuals younger than 18 to request absentee ballots, as well as amendments to Georgia’s “voter assistance” policies. One such revision allows family members and roommates to sign an affidavit and turn in absentee ballots on behalf of registered voters — an accommodation that was previously reserved for only disabled individuals.

Another after-effect of House Bill 316 — the law that ushered in Georgia’s new paper-backed voting system — is an extension of the State’s “inactivity cycle,” which has been expanded from three years to five years. That means Georgia voters will not be removed from the State rolls until a minimum of nine years of inactivity. 

“Most of the changes to the law are changing in the direction we were already moving,” Kirk said. “We try to stay ahead of the curve here and try to make sure that everyone’s voice is heard, that every vote is counted as long as it’s legally possible. I think the changes we’re seeing with how, for example, felons are processed, with the national change of address through the post office, all these things are going to really help us next year, going into that big election cycle, making sure everybody’s on the list that needs to be.”

The deluge of changes to Georgia’s voting system, naturally, raises the question: will the sweeping overhaul actually lead to higher turnout at the polls?

“I really hope so,” Kirk said. “I think one of the reasons we’ve seen low turnout in the past is people thought their voices weren’t being heard and people believed there was no point because they didn’t trust some of the equipment …  as we’re putting in these new best practices and as we’re putting in new equipment, people will feel more comfortable with it and come out and participate.”

And for those who still have apprehensions about the integrity of local elections, Kirk said he was more than happy to bring them aboard as volunteers. 

“If you have concerns about how elections are being conducted in the United States, the first step in my mind is to consider being a poll worker and come help the process,” he said. “We are always recruiting, we are always looking for people and if they want to be involved, we’re happy to have them.”