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Election officials seek to reassure voters
Lack of web connection a plus for voting machines, says local supervisor
W 030116 VOTING 01
Poll worker Donna Brigman assists Charles Townsend as he gets read to cast his ballot along with a steady stream voters at the William James Educational Complex during the Super Tuesday primaries in March. One major safeguard against hackers tampering with the voting machines used in Bulloch County is the fact that the machines are not connected to the Internet, officials told concerned voters this week. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/file


One major safeguard against hackers tampering with the voting machines used in Bulloch County is the fact that the machines are not connected to the Internet, officials told concerned voters this week.

“Our equipment is not linked to the Internet in any way, shape or form,” Bulloch County Election Supervisor Patricia Lanier Jones said in an interview.

Bulloch County’s vote counts are sent to the Georgia Secretary of State’s office by Internet, but on a separate computer system from the voting and counting machines, and only after a local digital and paper record of the count is produced. Nationally, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump suggested that the Nov. 8 general election may be “rigged.” But locally, mostly Democrats raised questions about system security.

Bill Herring, a Bulloch resident and Georgia 12th District Democratic Party chair, cited an Aug. 20 National Public Radio report that Georgia is using electronic-only machines more than a decade old.

“So the hardware is falling apart” and the operating system Georgia uses “is Windows 2000, which hasn’t been updated for security for years, which means it’s a sitting duck,” Herring quoted from the report when he spoke Monday afternoon to the Bulloch County Board of Elections. The comments were originally from Zeynep Tufekci, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Information and Library Science, in an interview from NPR’s Scott Simon.

Herring, who was accompanied by a few other Democrats, had informed Jones of their concerns in order to be put on the agenda. One man who said he was representing local Republicans asked a question or two.


Giving assurances

Also, in preparing for the meeting, Jones had representatives from Georgia Technologies, the local firm that maintains the Bulloch County government’s regular computer systems, look at the voting machines. Ordinarily, the local company isn’t allowed into the room where the voting machines are locked away, but Jones asked a technician to try to access the Internet with a voting machine while she watched, she said.

“Per our review, none of the voting machines are connected to an outside network or the Internet, and ‘hacking’ from an external source is not possible when it is not connected to an outside network,” Joseph H. Eason of Georgia Technologies wrote in an email to Jones. “If an unauthorized person attempts to tamper with the internal components of a voting machine, the seal on that machine will be broken.”

The machines do produce a kind of paper trail.

“Each voting machine records votes on a printed summary tape. … The tape provides a paper trail of the votes cast on that machine. Non-electronic voting is also available by mail ballot for those voting absentee,” Eason included in his remarks

Jones also contacted the Center for Elections Systems at Kennesaw State University. Kennesaw State provides ballot programming and support for Georgia’s statewide uniform voting equipment under contract with the Secretary of State’s Office, which oversees the elections.

Michael Barnes at Kennesaw State responded by emailing Jones a security synopsis prepared by Merle King, executive director of the Center for Elections.

“The voting system uses a layered approach. This means that penetrating one layer of defense does not give you access to the system, it only presents a different layer,” was one point in the synopsis.

The layers include physical things, such as locks, seals and logs; plus procedural steps, such as having more than one person sign off and reconciling results between the election office and precincts; as well as digital logic measures, such as data encryption and changing log-ins, King noted.


How Georgia votes

Georgia established a uniform election system for county, state and national elections in 2002. Cities are exempt for their municipal elections, and some still use mechanical voting machines or hand-counted paper ballots.

But all 159 counties use the touchscreen machines for election-day and in-person early voting. For paper absentee ballots, optical scanner machines read the ballots and record votes to a memory card like those used in the touchscreen machines.

Another element of the system is the ExpressPoll machine, used to scan voters’ driver’s licenses or other photo ID cards and program the familiar yellow plastic card that each voter carries to touchscreen machine to make ballot information appear. After the polls close, poll managers and workers bring the cards to the election office, where they are placed in a machine branded GEMS, for Global Election Management System, which produces the vote count.

“But there’s not an Internet connection to any of it,” Jones said.

Usually four times on an election night, she is asked to send the vote counts to the Secretary of State’s Office. That’s where the Internet comes in, but it isn’t directly connected to the GEMS or the original machines, and meanwhile, both the memory card and an archive memory in the touchscreen voting machine hold the original vote counts.

“A special thumb drive, given to us by the state, is inserted into the system – then we take the thumb drive, bring it over to computer that’s connected to the Internet,” Jones said. “We go to a specific, secure website and enter the information and download the thumb drive into that system, and it’s viewed across the state of Georgia.”

At the end of the night, Jones transmits unofficial final results electronically and also emails or faxes a paper form. The results are not certified until a few days later.

“We have a check there because whatever they show on their website matches what we’ve got on our printouts here, so if that were manipulated, we would know it immediately,” said Harry Starling.

Starling, who also answered questions at Monday’s meeting, is now employed in the tax assessors’ office but has been helping with Bulloch County’s elections for 38 years.

Herring said he was mostly reassured by the information from local officials.

“From what I learned at the Election Board meeting our local voting machines, which are not connected to the Internet, are secure from outside hacking. … The results after the election are transported to Atlanta again with outside influence,” he said. “My one request would be for the nonpartisan Election Board to confirm that the results we send to Atlanta match those results reported to the media by the Secretary of State for Bulloch County."



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