What does Larry Vaughn want Georgians to do?

Well, Mayor Larry Vaughn is not a real person. That is the name we’ve given to the owners of this website.  Like the fictional Mayor Larry Vaughn in the movie “Jaws” we have been convinced through bitter experience that we are not safe.  Unlike the fictional Larry Vaughn, we want to help.

The goal of this website is to educate Georgians about the dangers of our current election system.  We want to convince the citizens of Georgia to put pressure on elected officials at all levels to throw out Diebold AccuVote TS voting machines and replace them with safer, more modern, voting methods that are more transparent and immune to attack.

Georgia’s elected officials say that our election system is one of the most admired in the nation. If they are right, then what is the problem you’re trying to solve?

The people who say that have vested interests in convincing you they are doing their jobs well. The truth of the matter is that every independent observer who has looked at Georgia’s voting system says it is among the worst in the nation and that it is only a matter of time before there is a catastrophic attack that succeeds in nullifying an election.

No voting system is 100% immune from attack, but Georgia’s system is particularly vulnerable because our voting machines do not produce a voter-verified record of votes cast.  If there were to be a system failure there would be no backup from which the intent of voters could be determined.  This lack of backup is the main reason that objective experts rate Georgia’s voting system extremely unsafe to use.

How did Georgians get stuck with voting machines that have no backup in case of failure?

In 2002, Democratic Secretary of State Cathy Cox authorized the purchase of Diebold Accuvote TS voting machines. This was the state’s attempt to implement the Help America Vote Act of 2002, sweeping federal election reform legislation adopted in the wake of the chaos of the Gore vs Bush presidential election two years before.  Despite a Georgia statute requiring that any voting machine used in the state must have an independent audit trail for each vote cast, Georgia’s voting machines do not do that.

Once a voter touches the AccuVote screen to choose a candidate, reviews the choice and quits the voting session, internal software registers the vote and updates a total vote count.  That count is transmitted to a tabulation center, where totals from other polling centers are aggregated and reported.  A system that conformed to Georgia law would also save a printed record of each vote cast in addition to the total. If an electrical power surge were to damage all of the voting machines at a polling place, the paper trail could be used to reconstruct the vote. By the same token, if an adversary somehow managed to manipulate some of the vote totals, the paper trail could be used to detect that the vote totals reported did not match what the voters intended.  By not incorporating voter verified paper trails, Georgia’s voting machines are perfectly designed to aid agents who might want to disrupt our elections.

How easy is it to hack a Diebold AccuVote TS voting machine?

Almost immediately after they were introduced to the market, AccuVote TS machines were successfully hacked.  In the intervening years there have been dozens of demonstrations that involve easy-to-mount attacks.  This tab contains pointers to the many highly publicized ways in which these machines can be compromised.  As you can see it is not difficult at all to cause a Diebold AccuVote TS to incorrectly record a voter’s intention.  In the hands of an adversary, vulnerabilities like these can be used to change the results of an election.

It is so easy to mount one of these attacks that security engineers now consider Diebold AccuVote TS voting machines to be unsafe for U.S. elections, and most jurisdictions have discontinued their use.  Georgia, under the last two Republican Secretaries of State, has refused to acknowledge these vulnerabilities.  Officials continue to mislead Georgia voters.

Is it possible to hack an election without directly attacking a Diebold voting machine?

In a word, yes. A DRE is just one component of an entire system that has to work safely and securely.  Many of the hacks found here attack weaknesses in related systems and processes on which an AccuVote machine depends. Here is just one example of many.

When a voter shows up at a polling place, a poll worker checks the voter’s id and looks that person up on a voter registration database. That takes place on a completely separate device. If the person’s name cannot be found in the database, a provisional ballot is offered. People registered to vote but residing at addresses served by a different polling place, are directed to the correct polling place and are not allowed to vote at that time. Many (but not all) of those voters drive to the new location to vote. A registered voter who shows up at the correct polling place is handed a card with a chip in it.  That card is inserted into the voting machine to activate that voter’s ballot.

In each of these cases, the voter registration database plays a pivotal role. If the database is compromised, it is possible to change the likelihood that a given voter will actually cast a ballot. In a close contest even a small statistical change like that can have an impact on the election outcome. If the database itself is insecure, then many negative consequences are possible. For example, special logic can be inserted into the smart card’s chip that infects the vote counting software on the Accuvote.  Or, the database can be made to crash, invalidating a number of votes that (because there is no voter verified paper trail) cannot be recovered.

Diebold’s voting software depends on a proprietary database called GEMS. It is ancient software that uses a Microsoft database product called JET.  JET was abandoned by Microsoft years ago because it is unreliable. GEMS itself has been compromised in the laboratory and is considered to be unsafe for use in elections.

One last word about databases. The June 5, 2017 publication by The Intercept of a National Security Agency memorandum concerning foreign adversaries attempting to meddle in U.S. elections makes in clear that hackers target databases in an attempt to penetrate voting systems from a safe distance.

Our own Secretary of State helps these hackers in oftentimes unintended ways.  On October 13, 2015, Brian Kemp sent CD’s containing personal data from 6 million Georgia voters to media outlets and political party offices. Kemp claimed that a clerical error was at fault. An attacker in possession of such information would be in a good position to micro target individual voters in the way I described above.

Georgia election officials continue to claim that there has never been a successful attack on Georgia’s election system and therefore there is no reason to change it. Is that true?

Our election officials have no way of knowing whether this is true.  Just like a computer virus that hides on the hard disk of your personal computer, Diebold malware can be installed on smart cards, PCMCIA cards or in software updates to the Windows CE operating system that AccuVote uses to create and administer ballots. Malware just sits there unnoticed until something wakes it up. When that happens, the results can be catastrophic.

Public claims that Georgia has never been hacked are demonstrably untrue.  The Center for Election Systems (CES) was breached in an attack that was investigated by the FBI. While the FBI declined to bring criminal charges, they did not address the question of whether CES systems are secure as state election officials claim. PollBooks like the ones used to check voters against registration databases were stolen from a worker’s car. They were later found discarded. Although officials threw them away, the thieves could have downloaded voter data and software for use in a future attack.

There are also strong indications that there have been attacks that went unreported.  In the April 18 Special Election, a glitch in the GEMS database caused vote tabulation in North Fulton County to be stopped and restarted.  In that process an unknown number of votes were lost. In fact, unexplained blank ballots have plagued Georgia elections for several election cycles.

The accepted practice in all these cases is to assume that a breach has taken place and proceed with caution.

I’ve heard that Brian Kemp and Karen Handel have flip-flopped on the the question of election system security?  Have they always been as confident in the safety of our system as they appear to be today?

Both of these Republicans ran in part on a platform to enhance voter security. After taking office, both of them walked away from their pre-election concerns.

Brian Kemp’s office frequently cites the superb training and management of the state’s election system as a reason that Georgian’s should have confidence in its integrity. Is he right?

Kemp is right that administering Georgia’s 27,000 voting machines, hundreds of polling places, and thousands of election workers is a daunting task.  But Brian Kemp was handed the results of a Georgia Tech report on the safety of Georgia’ voting system.  That report was never acted on, and Kemp has done little to beef up Georgia’s capabilities.  Even so, Kemp’s record in protecting the Georgia’s vote is dismal.  Kemp claims success but in fact there is a  long list of missteps and misdeeds.  They do not speak well for Kemp’s stewardship. Examples include a 2015 “clerical error” that resulted in the unauthorized release of personal information about  6 million Georgians, the March 1 hack of Kennesaw State’s Center for Election Systems and ExpresPoll tablets that were simply stolen from an election worker’s car in a Cobb County parking lot.

What is the Center for Election Systems and what role does Kennesaw State University play in insuring the security of Georgia’s election system?

One of the great mysteries of Georgia’s election system is the fascination that election officials have with the Center for Election Systems (CES) at Kennesaw State University (KSU).  Established in 2002 to administer the new technology that Georgia had purchased, it was intended to provide a single technology vision across all state, local, and federal elections. The closest thing to a window into are occasional presentations given by CES leadership.  What is known is that CES on premise activities include hosting voter registration and GEMS databases, software in both source language and executable form and security-related information like passwords, poll worker background information, and logistics details for Georgia’s 27,000 voting machines.

KSU is a rapidly growing public regional university just north of Atlanta. Critics have long pointed out that KSU is an unlikely place for projects with national security implications, and that CES constitutes a single point of vulnerability for the system as a whole.  Those doubts were confirmed by a Politico investigative report by detailing a breaking at CES in August 2016 and its aftermath. Shortly after that the Politico and a flurry of related reporting, the Georgia Secretary of State announced that it was taking over CES and re-evaluating its role.

Isn’t this just alarmist talk?

I see a lot of experts who are not even Georgia residents talking about our voting systems. Why should we let outsiders try to meddle and disrupt Georgia elections?

Is there anything unethical about what Georgia’s election officials are doing?

Why haven’t the courts stepped in and forced the state to change?

All of this sounds very technical and hard to understand for the average voter.  In these kinds of “he said/she said” disputes how can I decide who is right?

Have Georgia’s election officials been lying to us?