A federal judge and a packed courtroom in Atlanta watched Wednesday as a computer science professor installed malicious software on an electronic voting machine and quickly converted an electoral win for George Washington to a loss in favor of opponent Benedict Arnold.
The voting machine University of Michigan professor Alex Halderman infected with the virus is identical to those Georgia voters will use in November.
Halderman used a memory card normally assigned to poll workers that he said could easily be programmed with malware introduced through a computer system used by the state or counties to prepare for elections.
That demonstrated voting machines’ vulnerability—which operate on software that expired more than five years ago—is one reason the Colorado-based Coalition for Good Governance has joined with Georgia voters in asking Judge Amy Totenberg of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia to order state officials to junk the antiquated machines—which produce no independent paper record of individual votes—in favor of paper ballots by Nov. 6.
Totenberg on Wednesday acknowledged the machine’s susceptibility to hackers. “It’s not a theoretical, paranoid notion at this point,” she said. “We can’t see our vote and what happened to it.”
“To call it paranoia, you don’t deal with it,” she added, “and I suspect we have to deal with it.”
But the judge bluntly called the choice she faces “a Catch-22.” She said she must balance disturbing testimony from cybersecurity experts that the current system is both vulnerable and may already have been compromised, against public officials who countered in testimony Wednesday that converting to paper ballots will result in a chaotic, error-prone and, ultimately, untrustworthy midterm election.
Totenberg said she intends to issue a ruling Friday or Monday.
Totenberg said she convened the hearing because the security of Georgia’s elections “is an issue of public importance.”
“We are in a very quickly evolving situation in terms of cybersecurity and cybercrime,” she said. “No one wants their vote to be insecure, much less diluted or altered.”
Yet, “It’s a big job putting on an election,” she continued. “You don’t want to compromise things.”
Totenberg also chided teams of lawyers from Atlanta, Seattle and Morrison Foerster’s Washington, D.C., office who asked for the injunction in August in a suit filed in 2017. “I’m concerned we are here at the eleventh hour,” she said.
But she acknowledged that increasingly public calls by cyber experts across the nation for a return to paper ballots and alarms raised by national security officials and congressional committees about the vulnerability of the nation’s election infrastructure to hostile nations such as Russia, have “provided far more substantive material … than what was in front of our court in 2017.”
“I’m concerned on the part of the state as well,” she told lawyers defending the State Election Board and Secretary of State Brian Kemp, the Republican candidate for governor who was not present at Wednesday’s hearing. “Why are we just dealing with this now?”
In urging Totenberg to order the state’s public election officials to junk touchscreen voting in favor of paper ballots, Atlanta attorney Bruce Brown, who is representing the coalition, pointed to what he said was “overwhelming evidence this system is unreliable.”
The state’s response has been to say, “It’s broken, but we’ll fix it later,” Brown said. “When anyone says it’s broken but we will fix it later, they are measuring the chance of something really bad happening and measuring the resulting harm. Everyone who knows the risk and what’s at stake is saying, ‘Change it now.’”
But Marietta attorney John Salter Jr., who with partner and father-in-law former Gov. Roy Barnes is defending Kemp and the elections board, warned that early voting, which is slated to begin Oct. 15, “would be catastrophically impacted” by an order to return to paper ballots.
Training for as many as 20,000 poll workers is expected to begin next week, he said. “How do you train if you don’t know what the rules are?”
He also pointed to what he said was an insufficient number of optical scanners in the state needed to read and tally the ballots.
And he branded the chain of custody that would need to be put in place to secure the paper ballots “a nightmare.”
“They cannot guarantee a secure election with paper ballots,” he said.