Kemp faces new voter security questions amid Russia probe

As evidence mounts that Russia is again trying to interfere in U.S. votes, Georgia’s top elections official faces new scrutiny of his oversight of the state’s voting system.

Secretary of State Brian Kemp, a Republican candidate for governor, tells voters the state’s elections system is secure and that he doesn’t need additional help from Washington to defend against hackers.

But he’s also open to a paper-based voting system, which his critics from both parties say is essential to ensuring the state’s touch-screen voting machines can’t be undermined. And he’s come under fire for past lapses that have left confidential voter data vulnerable.

For Kemp, who launched a statewide bus tour Monday, the fears about the state’s voting network are misguided. He said in an interview he’s “completely confident” in the integrity of Georgia’s election system, and brushed aside concerns the state isn’t doing enough to protect the ballots.

“I hate saying I’m completely confident, but knock on wood, we’ve got the right protocols in place,” he added, rapping his knuckles on a table. “We are literally working on that night and day. We have to be ever-vigilant.”

For his critics, Kemp’s stance is evidence that he’s not up to the challenge of protecting the vote from a host of foreign and domestic threats.

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, the Republican front-runner, wants to scrap touchscreen voting machines in part because he fears the current system leaves ballots vulnerable to hacking. His spokesman had sharper words, questioning whether Kemp could run a “competent election.” 

Democrats have been equally scathing. Stacey Abrams, a Democratic former legislative leader and candidate for governor, said he suffers from a “gross incompetence at running our elections.” And the state party announced Monday it tapped a “voter protection director” to scrutinize Kemp’s decisions.

‘Conspiracy theorist’

Russia’s attempts to influence the 2016 election — and the certainty in Washington that it will try again this year — have only sharpened the focus on Kemp’s role.

The Justice Department on Friday charged 13 Russians and three firms with using a sprawling network to support Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, outlining a vast conspiracy that involves stolen identities and phony activists who tried to sharpen divides over race and religion.

And Dan Coats, one of the nation’s top intelligence officials, told Congress last week that the U.S. is “under attack” from Russian agents trying to undermine confidence in the electoral system. He warned, in unequivocal terms, that Russian President Vladimir Putin is targeting the November elections.

But Kemp’s handling of the voting network was in the spotlight long before the specter of Russian interference took center stage.

His office in 2015 accidentally disclosed the Social Security numbers and other private information of more than 6 million voters to media outlets and political parties. His office hired an independent auditor to review its protocol and offered voters a year of free credit and identity theft monitoring.

And Kemp was forced to move the state’s elections work in-house after a private researcher discovered security lapses at a Kennesaw State University center that houses election servers that could have exposed more than 6.5 million voter records and other sensitive information.

His opponents have highlighted those lapses as they call for new protections for touch-screen machines that leave no paper record of how people voted and rely on outdated Windows 2000 software no longer supported by Microsoft.

Cagle said he would support paper backups to ballots and other new safeguards to ensure the “accuracy” of the vote, echoing concerns from lawmakers who fear the system of 27,000 machines once considered to be cutting-edge technology is now a potential liability.

And though Kemp’s campaign compared Cagle to a “liberal conspiracy theorist” for that critique, the secretary of state also said he supports a more extensive use of paper-ballot backups as long as they are tied to increased training for local officials.

In an interview Monday, Kemp said he didn’t call for paper-ballot backups earlier was because his office first had to revamp the state’s buggy voter registration system and revamp its cybersecurity protocol. He said his support of a November pilot project in Conyers that mixed touch screen voting with paper balloting showed “we’ve been leading the way.”

“When this equipment came out in Conyers, when we saw what was out there, we saw it was something that everybody would like. We felt good about the technology,” he said, adding that the state can’t move too quickly on the overhaul. “I know how hard it is to educate local officials on changes.”

‘We must fight’

Kemp said his confidence in the state’s voting system stems from changes he’s made since he took office in 2011, including the establishment of a new cybersecurity officer and a five-year road map developed by an outside auditor.

He said he can’t publicly disclose many of the steps developed with the help of private-sector firms, but that their reviews have helped strengthen the network.

“We looked at our vulnerabilities. We’ve been working on that every single year,” he said. “We can’t rely just on our chief information officer. We need multiple people looking at it, private sector people looking at it, and we are constantly bringing in others to assess, train and test.”

He cited the third-party reviews in his decision to turn down assistance from the Department of Homeland Security, which offered each state help evaluating their elections network.

In August of 2016, the department said it uncovered evidence that Russian hackers targeted elections systems in 21 states — Georgia was not one of them. Most states requested federal help in assessing their voting systems in the runup to the presidential election, and at least a dozen have asked for a review this year.

At the time, Kemp downplayed the possibility of Russian hacking state election systems and called the offer of help “vast federal overreach.”

“We didn’t have a need for it,” he said Monday. The same things they are offering, we have already done. There were other states that needed it more than we do.”

Democrats see Kemp’s stance as an opportunity to gain ground with voters concerned about Russian interference.

On Monday, the Democratic Party of Georgia said it became the only state party in the nation that currently has a year-round full time director of voting protection. Its pick is Sara Tindall Ghazal, an attorney with experience monitoring elections in Jamaica, Liberia and the Cherokee Nation.

Rebecca DeHart, the state party’s director, said Ghazal will be tasked with challenging Kemp and his “lengthy record of elections mismanagement and voter suppression.”

“We only see elections of this scale every four years,” said DeHart. “So, when we already know that Republicans and Russians alike are working systematically to suppress our constitutional rights, we must fight these assaults with the grit and tenacity of a thousand armies.”

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