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Tech experts: Georgia should discard electronic balloting now

"Georgia's election system as it stands right now is not reliable."

ATLANTA - One of Georgia Tech’s foremost computer experts says Georgia’s election system is among America’s most vulnerable to hacking. The election in 90 days will take place on electronic machines that have been in use for 16 years.

"We’re among the most vulnerable in the U.S.," said Dr. Richard DeMillo, who has made a career of computer technology. He was Georgia Tech’s Dean of Computing, directed the computer research division of the National Science Foundation, and was technology chief for computer maker Hewlett-Packard.

DeMillo likes computers. But not for casting votes.

"(With) every piece of technology that you insert into the voting process, you increase risks of cyberattacks to that piece of technology," DeMillo told 11Alive News.

MORE | Georgia legislature considering paper ballots for future elections

Georgia voters cast ballots on an electronic gizmo called the Diebold AccuVote TS. The state says it’s secure and suggests the machines are out of reach from hackers.

“Georgia builds its encrypted ballot databases on machines which are never connected to the internet,” state elections director Chris Harvey wrote in an Aug. 1 letter to Georgia county commissioners and county election officials.

But DeMillo says that only adds to the challenge of hackers – who can find ways into machines before the votes are cast.

"As a point in fact, these machines are attached to the internet at various points in their lifetime," DeMillo explained. "For example, when the machines are programed, when there’s a PC card that’s inserted, those cards originated on a computer that was attached to the internet. So it’s like (drug) users sharing needles in a back alley."

And, DeMillo says, the machines are built so that if they were hacked, the results might be changed and Georgians would never know about it.

Cybersecurity researcher Logan Lamb of Atlanta agrees.

"Georgia’s election system as it stands right now is not reliable," Lamb said in an 11Alive interview.

Lamb has in his living room a Diebold AccuVote TS electronic voting machine. It’s identical to the hundreds stored in the Fulton county election warehouse, awaiting deployment for the November election and early voting this fall. Georgians will choose a governor and other state offices.

"A bad guy can insert a memory card into these machines," Lamb said. "They can then put malware on the machine. And the way these elections are conducted, these memory cards actually move between machines quite a bit."

Lamb and other researchers concede there’s no evidence a Georgia election has been successfully hacked. And Harvey, the state’s elections director writes, “there is no credible evidence that our election process is anything except secure and accurate.”

Still, Lamb and DeMillo say the state should discard the Diebold machines now and switch to paper ballots.

"Paper ballots scanned by optical scan devices give you a balance between technology so you can actually scale the vote to a metro area like Atlanta, and cybersecurity," DeMillo said.

"At the end of the day, this is just a very old computer. I wouldn’t check my bank account with a Windows XP machine," Lamb said.

Paper ballots have their own long history of fraud. But researchers say auditing paper ballots can be accomplished; with Georgia’s electronic system, vote audits are all but impossible.

Georgia plans to switch up its voting system after the 2018 election.