Georgia's primary stumbles highlight anxiety over election readiness

absentee ballot application (Linda Parton.Shutterstock.com) 

Following a chaotic Georgia primary, lawmakers are expressing increasing concern that a combination of threats stemming from the coronavirus pandemic, hacking groups and disinformation campaigns could seriously undermine confidence in election results this November.

After Russian hackers probed -- and in some cases successfully penetrated -- state voter registration systems across the nation in 2016, policymakers and experts have largely spent the past three years mapping out how to better defend both electronic voting machines as well as IT infrastructure like registration software, election management systems and e-pollbooks.

While protecting those assets is still viewed as critical, the coronavirus pandemic and resulting social distancing guidelines put in place by public health experts have introduced new complexities. States are scrambling to scale up their vote-by-mail operations to handle historically large number of absentee ballots.

Further, the virus is especially deadly for senior citizens and most poll workers are over the age of 60, according to a Pew Research Center survey. That has led to worries that a significant percentage could opt to stay home this election cycle -- something that appeared to affect some Georgia counties -- further straining resources and extending wait times for in-person voting.

Many of these latent fears by election experts came to a head last week during Georgia's presidential primary, when undertrained poll workers struggled to process a backlog of absentee ballots, faced huge lines in some polling stations and reportedly wrestled with navigating newly purchased Ballot Marking Device voting machines.

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), co-chair of the Cyberspace Solarium Commission, called the Georgia primary "a semi disaster" and warned that the experience could be repeated in states across the country come November.

"I've had hearings with secretaries of state and chief election officers and they're almost cocky about how invulnerable they are, and I just don't believe it," King said during a June 15 webinar hosted by New America.

Elections, King said, are primarily exercises of trust. Despite the focus on election security over the past four years, there remains a multitude of ways for both domestic and international bad actors to undermine that trust on election day.

"I just don't think we're anywhere near ready. I hate to be doom and gloom about it, but that's what worries me right now," he said. "It may be a foreign actor, it may be a domestic actor or maybe several foreign actors. All they've got to do is undermine that confidence and trust and they're 90% home."

The expansion of vote by mail is expected to cause delays in election-night reporting as precincts deal with backlogs of absentee ballots. According to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, Georgia voters cast more than a million ballots in the week before the primary, nearly 80% of that total via mail. Raffensperger and county election officials have both blamed each other for Georgia's primary day problems.

In Fulton County, where problems were particularly pronounced, Election Administrator Richard Barron said during a news conference that implementing expanded vote-by-mail operations in addition to managing the "full complement" of election day infrastructure "stretched" county resources to the brink.

Some lawmakers believe the failures in Georgia are a bad omen for the nation's election readiness. In a June 15 Medium post, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) called the state's primary "a train wreck" and said state officials "had no contingency plans for extremely predictable COVID-related complications." He called for Congress to increase federal funding and guidance to states as well as better staffing and training at the state and local level.

"First, prepare aggressively for a huge increase in mail-in ballots. Purchase the equipment, train workers and adjust state laws as necessary NOW, instead of waiting for the fall and then scrambling to catch up," Wyden wrote.

King's co-chair on the commission, Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), said his "nightmare scenario" is one where longer than usual delays in vote counting are exploited by hacking groups or disinformation campaigns seeking to sow confusion about the final results.

"It seems more likely we're going to see an extended period of time of just the basic counting of [ballots], and that's in a scenario in Georgia where you didn't have … a major cyberattack," he said. "How do you think we're going to be able to weather the storm if we have a delay in terms of the reporting, particularly coming from battleground states or districts?"

In an annex to its original report focused on the pandemic, the commission wrote that the federal government has "the capacity to quickly surge federal expertise and resources" to states in support of elections in response to the virus. While security concerns make widespread internet voting "impossible at this time," the commission did call for beefing up the Election Assistance Commission's budget and expanding election grant programs to state and local governments to set up alternative means of voting.

King also cited another recommendation from the report -- creating a new National Cyber Director position at the White House -- as a critical piece in terms of galvanizing the federal government's efforts to protect elections.

"Right now, there's no one in charge, and there's no one who the president can go to and say, 'Work on this' or 'You're in charge of this, you're responsible for this, you're accountable for this,'" King said.

About the Author

Derek B. Johnson is a former senior staff writer at FCW.


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