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Election board sidesteps calls for paper ballots while possible server breach under investigation

Coffee County issue under investigation, but board aims to keep using computerized voting

COFFEE COUNTY, Ga. — A possible election security compromise in south Georgia apparently won’t lead to any changes in the way the state conducts this month’s primary or subsequent runoff. 

The state election board chairman says the incident is under investigation but there’s no evidence yet to take emergency action.

The issue is whether a possible election security breach in south Georgia compromises the state’s new voting system statewide.

The state’s voting system runs on computer software shared by voting machines in every Georgia county. Now, election officials say they are looking into a possible security breach in Coffee County, where a backer of former President Donald Trump allegedly got access to an election server and made images, or copies, of the code that runs it.  

"This is a single point of failure that is a nightmare for cybersecurity experts," said one of Georgia's foremost cybersecurity experts. 

Dr. Rich DeMillo, head of Georgia Tech's cybersecurity program, says it potentially threatens voting systems statewide.  

"Someone who wants to install malware on a server normally has to do this at arms length. You’ve given now (potential hackers) the ability to directly access the machine and do it," DeMillo told 11Alive News.

In recent weeks, dozens of candidates in the May primary – including Republicans, Democrats and Libertarians – have asked the state election board to use its emergency power to switch the primary election to hand-marked paper ballots. Many cited an ongoing cybersecurity threat to Georgia’s computer-driven voting system.

States have been switching away from computers over the last decade. Ten years ago, only 37% of voters were using hand-marked paper ballots. Now, it’s 67%, according to verifiedvoting.org.

The secretary of state's office said earlier this month it is investigating the allegation of the security breach in Coffee County.

But the chairman of the state election board says the people who want to switch up the election system would be better off suing the state instead.

"I don’t see that as a proper use of our emergency power," said Matt Mashburn, a Republican attorney appointed by Gov. Brian Kemp to lead the election board. 

"We use our emergency power very, very rarely," Mashburn said. "I would think that the best recourse for the fastest action would be to file a lawsuit and see if you can get a judge to issue a (temporary restraining order)."

DeMillo says that would give potential hackers more time to play with the information they may have gotten from the Coffee County election server.

"It may work out OK," DeMillo said. "But there's a reason we (Georgia Tech) turn out people, hundreds of people with masters degrees in this area. And it’s to clean up after decisions like that."

The state is already defending its election system in court in a case that has dragged on for years. Primary votes are due to get counted in a week. 

Full election resources: 11alive.com/vote

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