Ahead of this fall’s election for governor of Georgia, one candidate has been highlighted in the news, and not just for his role as the Republican nominee.
Brian Kemp has faced accusations of lack of election security and voter suppression with his current position as Secretary of State of Georgia.
Kemp has served in this position since 2010 and, according to the office’s website, “is responsible for the administration of secure, accessible and fair elections.”
Election security has been highlighted nationally, with many advocates holding election officials accountable.
Ten months after the 2016 election, the Department of Homeland Security informed 21 states that they were targeted for Russian activity. Georgia was not one of these targeted states, which has been used to support the notion that Georgia’s systems are sufficiently secure.
However, a discovery by independent researcher Logan Lamb exposed 6.7 million voter registration records, accessible by anyone.
This data was available through the website for the state Center for Election Systems at Kennesaw State University. AP News reports the data included social security numbers, party affiliation and passwords to access election management files.
Lamb first brought attention to vulnerabilities in Georgia election systems in August 2016.
Following this discovery, a federal lawsuit was launched against Georgia election officials, including Kemp, for failing to secure the state’s voting system and allowing the breach.
AP News reported that just after the lawsuit was filed, a computer server that was crucial to the case was wiped clean.
“First, don’t panic yet,” Richard Baskerville said. Baskerville is a security expert in information systems and regent’s professor at Georgia State. “In cybersecurity, ‘exposures’ is a technical term. It means that it was possible to access the system.”
He highlighted two main errors that resulted in Lamb’s discovery: poor maintenance and poor configuration.
“In the first instance updates and patches for the content management software were not performed, in the second instance more secure access was created, but the unsecure access was not deleted,” he said. “Both of these problems relate more to human behavior than technology.”
“In terms of policies, it is similar to credit card data. If an organization decides to process credit cards, the payment card industry (PCI) imposes a whole raft of cybersecurity policies,” he said.
He gave direction to the Georgia State Technology website for information on how Georgia State handles security assessments and PCI.
“The fix? Better state policies, more rigid imposition of the policies, and assessment to ensure the policies are followed,” Baskerville said.
The lawsuit has brought in a new debate, with the request for the state government to abandon all electronic voting machines and switch to paper ballots.
According to Verified Voting, Georgia is one of only five states that rely entirely on electronic voting machines and one of 14 with no paper ballot backup.
Kemp has remained a staunch opponent of paper ballots for eight years but has finally changed his position, agreeing to replace electronic systems with paper ballots, according to The Washington Post.
However, Kemp says it’s not possible for the upcoming Nov. 6 election and will need to be enforced by the 2020 election instead.
Those behind the lawsuit have raised questions on Kemp’s desire to preserve voter integrity, because without a paper ballot trail there would be no way to audit and verify vote tally.
Another situation under scrutiny of Kemp as Secretary of State ahead of the election involves a proposal made by a rural Georgia county to close seven of its nine polling locations.
Randolph county, located in south-west Georgia, has a population of 7,000, the majority of which (61 percent) are black.
The proposal was turned down by Georgia lawmakers.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 30 percent of the population are in poverty, compared to the state average of 16 percent. The county has also traditionally voted Democrat, voting for Obama in 2008 and 2012 and Clinton in 2016.
Dr. Jeffrey Lazarus is an associate professor of political science at Georgia State who explained the situation and the public’s reaction.
“The county government recently hired a consultant to suggest ways they could cut costs, and one of his suggestions was to close voting precincts that serve a small number of voters,” Lazarus said.
Lazarus outlined Kemp’s role as being in charge of administering elections.
“Kemp does not have a strong record of protecting the access to the ballot of voters, in particular minority voters,” he said. “And many Democrats fear he will use his position as overseer of elections to unduly influence the vote in November.”
For Lazarus, the initial reaction and connection to voter suppression is part of a larger trend.
“Nationally, the Republican party has similarly advocated for policies which disproportionately affect minorities’ ability to vote,” he said. “So when news readers saw the situation in Randolph county, already previously aware of what’s going on at the state and national levels, they assumed the worst.”
The reason for closure is due to a lack of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), despite being open a month before for the runoff election for Republican governor.
Aside from the topic of voter suppression, Lazarus said, “If the polling locations close it’s unlikely to influence statewide election results, because the county is so small.”
Associate Professor Daniel Franklin teaches political science at Georgia State and identified one factor that is likely to influence statewide election results.
“Failure to register to vote reduces the turnout of eligible voters in the United States by about 10% compared to the voter turnout in other industrialized democracies,” Franklin said.
For those interested in participating in this fall’s election for governor, Franklin directs them to register online through the Secretary of State’s system.
He said, “Students should know the deadline to register to vote is October 9. You can’t just go to the polls in November without registering first.”