‘Full plate’ of wor­ries for new sec­re­tary of state

Ledger-Enquirer - - Front page - BY RUSS BYNUM

SA­VAN­NAH

The Re­pub­li­can elected to over­see Ge­or­gia’s elec­tions for the next four years will in­herit an of­fice tasked with re­plac­ing the state’s ag­ing elec­tronic vot­ing ma­chines, en­sur­ing se­cu­rity flaws that ex­posed vot­ers’ per­sonal in­for­ma­tion to po­ten­tial hacks have been patched and deal­ing with sev­eral law­suits that al­lege voter sup­pres­sion marred the 2018 midterms.

“We are mov­ing for­ward as fast as we can,” Brad Raf­fensperger said Wed­nes­day, ac­knowl­edg­ing the big work­load he faces as Ge­or­gia’s next sec­re­tary of state. “It’s a full plate.”

The Re­pub­li­can state law­maker won a runoff elec­tion Tues­day to be­come the state’s new elec­tions chief, de­feat­ing for­mer Demo­cratic Con­gress­man John Bar­row. Their race gained un­usual at­ten­tion af­ter GOP Gov.elect Brian Kemp, who stepped down as sec­re­tary of state the day af­ter the Novem­ber elec­tion, was loudly crit­i­cized by Democrats for over­see­ing his own elec­tion and ac­cused of sup­press­ing votes to im­prove his odds of win­ning – al­le­ga­tions Kemp strongly de­nies.

Per­haps the big­gest chal­lenge Raf­fensperger will face: restor­ing the rat­tled con­fi­dence of Ge­or­gia vot­ers.

“I think this elec­tion brought a lot of, I guess you could say, the un­der­belly of elec­tions into the light,” said Cathy Cox, a Demo­crat who served as sec­re­tary of state from 1999 through 2007 and is

THE SEC­RE­TARY OF STATE’S OF­FICE HAS FACED CRIT­I­CISM AT LEAST THREE TIMES SINCE 2015 FOR SE­CU­RITY BREACHES THAT RISKED EX­POS­ING IN­FOR­MA­TION ON MIL­LIONS OF GE­OR­GIA VOT­ERS.

now the dean of Mercer Univer­sity’s law school.

A fed­eral judge scolded state elec­tions of­fi­cials ahead of Novem­ber for fail­ing to re­place pa­per­less elec­tronic vot­ing ma­chines de­spite ex­perts’ warn­ings that they’re vul­ner­a­ble to hack­ing. Mean­while, the sec­re­tary of state’s of­fice has faced crit­i­cism at least three times since 2015 for se­cu­rity breaches that risked ex­pos­ing in­for­ma­tion on mil­lions of Ge­or­gia vot­ers.

A sweep­ing law­suit filed af­ter the elec­tion by Fair Fight Ac­tion, a non­profit backed by Demo­cratic gu­ber­na­to­rial nom­i­nee Stacey Abrams, seeks to over­turn poli­cies in which in­ac­tive vot­ers are fre­quently deleted from the rolls and vot­ers’ reg­is­tra­tion in­for­ma­tion is re­quired to ex­actly match the same in­for­ma­tion on other gov­ern­ment data­bases. Other pend­ing law­suits chal­lenge Ge­or­gia’s re­jec­tion of ab­sen­tee bal­lots with sig­na­tures that don’t match those on file or when cer­tain in­for­ma­tion is miss­ing or in­ac­cu­rate.

Vot­ers at some Ge­or­gia precincts also faced wait times of two hours or more Nov. 6 as the state saw record turnout for a non-pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

Even Kemp had prob­lems with his vot­ing card when he tried to cast his bal­lot, though the is­sue was fixed quickly.

In a phone in­ter­view Wed­nes­day, Raf­fensperger said he hopes to get state law­mak­ers to ap­prove and fund a new, more se­cure vot­ing sys­tem in time for Ge­or­gia’s mu­nic­i­pal elec­tions next fall. That would al­low elec­tion of­fi­cials and vot­ers to try out the new sys­tem be­fore the pres­i­den­tial pri­maries in 2020.

As for prob­lems vot­ers en­coun­tered at the polls this year, Raf­fensperger said they seem to have been “rather mi­nor” over­all and largely were caused by glitches by elec­tion of­fi­cials at the county level. Like Kemp, he fiercely de­nied ar­gu­ments that of­fi­cials tried to dampen turnout among poor and mi­nor­ity vot­ers, cit­ing record turnout last month and big in­creases in voter reg­is­tra­tion.

“There was no con­certed ef­fort of any sup­pres­sion what­so­ever,” Raf­fensperger said, adding he would be open to a re­view of “what went right and what went wrong” with the elec­tion.

Asked how he plans to re­store con­fi­dence in vot­ers wor­ried about the fair­ness and in­tegrity of elec­tions, he said a new vot­ing sys­tem that’s “cy­ber-se­cure” and has an au­ditable pa­per trail should go a long way.

“I think that’s go­ing to give vot­ers con­fi­dence their bal­lot never changed af­ter it left their hands,” Raf­fensperger said.

Cox said she also sus­pects many of Ge­or­gia’s vot­ing prob­lems this year were “un­in­ten­tional and might even bor­der on neg­li­gence,” as op­posed to be­ing ef­forts at out­right sup­pres­sion.

She said some is­sues could be eas­ily be reme­died, such as what she called an out­dated re­quire­ment that vot­ers write their birth­date on the out­side of the en­velopes used for mail-in ab­sen­tee bal­lots.

Re­gard­less of in­ten­tions, vot­ers’ faith in elec­tions has been shaken since at least the 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign as can­di­dates’ rhetoric has in­creas­ingly cast doubt on the fair­ness of the sys­tem, said Charles Bul­lock, a po­lit­i­cal science pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Ge­or­gia.

“This year in Ge­or­gia it’s been Democrats say­ing there’s some­thing wrong with the sys­tem and you can’t trust it. But two years ago who was say­ing it? Don­ald Trump,” Bul­lock said. “We’ve got­ten to some de­gree where both sides are say­ing our elec­toral sys­tem can­not be trusted. And that’s kind of a bad mes­sage to be putting out.”

Brad Raf­fensperger

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