Election Security Becomes A Political Issue In Georgia Governor's Race

23 hours ago
Originally published on August 12, 2018 4:35 pm

In the fall of 2016, as reports of Russian-backed hacking of state election systems were surfacing, Georgia's Secretary of State, Brian Kemp, rejected federal offers of help to secure his state's voting systems.

"The question remains whether the federal government will subvert the Constitution to achieve the goal of federalizing elections under the guise of security," Kemp told a technology website.

Now, Kemp is the Republican nominee to be Georgia's next governor, and in another election season where cyber-attacks are in the air, his record securing the state's elections is becoming a campaign issue.

This past week, the Georgia Democratic Party called for Kemp's resignation, citing in part his response to Russian-backed hacking attempts of state voting systems in 2016.

Georgia is one of 14 states that uses electronic-only voting machines without a paper trail voters can verify for themselves. Cybersecurity experts agree this leaves elections more exposed to potential hacking and technical problems. Georgia is the most populous of five states using electronic voting machines statewide.

Georgia Democrats say immediate changes are needed to secure this November's midterms.

"Here we are. Three months before an important election. Living with the reality that once again Georgia voters might be going to the polls and not know if your vote actually counts," Democratic activist Caroline Stover told a crowd of 100 Democrats as they sipped beers and ate tater tots at an Atlanta bar last week.

A handful of Georgia voters filed a pending federal lawsuit pushing the state to use paper ballots in this fall's midterms.

But Democrats like Stover want Kemp to order a switch to paper ballots right away.

Earlier this year, Kemp formed a commission to look at moving the state to new voting technology with a paper trail. But he says that switch shouldn't happen before this fall's election because it would cause chaos at the polls, and potentially suppress turn-out.

"That would be an absolute disaster, changing from the current system we have now to paper ballots," Kemp said in an interview.

"Absolutely" secure

Georgia was not on the list of 21 states that the Department of Homeland Security said had been targeted by Russian hackers in 2016. But a recent indictment by special counsel Robert Mueller of 12 Russian intelligence officers revealed that they had visited county election websites in Georgia and other states.

Kemp's office later announced Cobb and Fulton counties in metro Atlanta were visited. It said, citing information from the federal government, that the specific web pages visited showed general, public information.

"There is no evidence that either of the county webpages were compromised as a result of this activity," read a letter sent by the state to local elections officials.

The state said it assumes the Russian visitors were "conducting research to assist future potential operations."

Kemp insists Georgia's voting system is secure.

"Absolutely," he said.

And Kemp said his management of technology issues as Secretary of State bolster his campaign's message, citing added firewalls to protect data, and regular work with vendors to to conduct cyber scans and security training for employees.

Recently, the Secretary of State's office worked with the Department of Homeland Security to train local election officials. And the Secretary of State's office said DHS conducted physical security assessments in 17 Georgia counties.

"If anything my record is a strength for me," Kemp said. "I'm glad to talk about that record all day long."

But Kemp and DHS have had a rocky relationship in the past.

Ahead of the 2016 election, Kemp criticized a proposal from then-DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson to designate voting systems "critical infrastructure" giving them enhanced protections similar to the electrical grid, for example.

In December 2016, Kemp accused the department of hacking his office's network. The DHS inspector general later determined it was just normal computer activity related to a federal official checking Georgia's firearms license database.

Before and after the election, Kemp's office declined assistance from the Homeland Security department to bolster the state's voting systems.

"It's so frustrating that people keep bringing that up because DHS was offering to the states the same exact things that we had already been doing" with private contractors, Kemp said.

Kemp said the relationship between DHS and his office has improved under the Trump administration.

"We've been in constant contact with them," he said. "The communication level with the states is much better than it was when Obama and Jeh Johnson were there."

President Trump's endorsement helped propel Kemp to a nearly 40 point, upset victory in Georgia's GOP primary for governor.

"I'm infuriated"

Kemp is running against Democrat Stacey Abrams in a polarized race attracting national attention and money.

In the first two weeks of the general election campaign Abrams has mostly shied away from attacking Kemp over how he's overseen elections. But other Democrats are fired up about Kemp's record on election security.

"I'm infuriated," said Elizabeth Starling at the voting security event in Manuel's Tavern

For her, Kemp has no business overseeing any election when he's on the ballot himself.

"I think he's not only failing in his duty, but he shouldn't have it," Starling said. "He should not have that responsibility anymore."

Kemp is brushing off the Georgia Democratic Party's calls for him to resign even though some past Secretaries of State running for higher office here have stepped down.

"The same people that are criticizing me on that," said Kemp "If I resigned...they'd be criticizing me saying 'you're scared, you're leaving your office, because you don't want to have to take responsibility for running the election because it's not secure or whatever.' So I mean I think that's just a political argument."

Before Kemp won the GOP's gubernatorial nomination, some in his party questioned his performance on the job.

Some Republican state legislators "just don't trust the current Secretary of State to run a competent election — and with good reason," said Scott Binkley, campaign manager for Kemp's GOP primary opponent, earlier this year. "We're looking to restore trust in our processes."

Since Kemp won the primary, Georgia Republicans are quieter about Kemp's record on election security.

Marien Scheider is president of Verified Voting, a non-profit that advocates for paper ballots. She said election administration in the U.S. has always brought partisanship. Today, she worries it will hurt the country.

"This issue of election administration and election security is not a political issue," she said. "It's a national security issue. These are national security concerns."

As candidates in Georgia fight to win over voters, they'll also be arguing about whether the technology used to cast and count their votes can be trusted.

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

As the 2018 midterms approach, there's one issue that threatens to separate President Trump from his base - tariffs.

(SOUNDBITE OF COWS MOOING)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Those are the cows of Vision-Aire Farms in Eldorado, Wis. This farm is owned and run by Janet Clark and her family.

JANET CLARK: And it's getting to be feeding time, so they're going to - now that they hear me, they'll start yelling in a little bit here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She's the second generation. And, as she walks us around, the third generation - her kids and her brothers - are giving each other rides on the farm equipment and helping out nursing baby calves.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: We're going to go feed these ones. I'm not feeding the one that was born.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's a beautiful farm. Immaculate, really. A barn nestled in the greenest hills surrounded by corn and sunflower fields.

CLARK: Every day, I start out at 5:30 in the morning. I'm here feeding calves 'cause that takes me about a couple hours to feed calves.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And she'll tell you it is hard work even in the best of times. And these are not the best of times.

CLARK: The last two years have been the most challenging. Prices have been very stagnant. Our milk prices have been kind of low.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Dairy is particularly vulnerable to fluctuations in the market.

CLARK: To do this every single day, it still costs me the same amount of money. And...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Cows need to be milked. They need to be fed.

CLARK: They need to be milked. There's no valve to shut off, right? (Laughter) It's not like some industries.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Into this mix came President Trump's announcement of steel and aluminum tariffs on Mexico, Canada, the European Union and China. And it didn't take long for countries to slap retaliatory tariffs on iconic U.S. products, including dairy. And since a big part of Wisconsin's dairy goes abroad, that's been a big problem for farmers like Janet.

CLARK: We have created relationships with the people that we're exporting with, and we have really good relationships. Now they're going to back off and not buy from us. So then that gives - that opens the door for other people to come in and create those relationships.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And she's worried that clients like Mexico will start buying cheese from, say, Italy instead of Wisconsin, and American dairy won't get those hard-won relationships back. Trump's tariffs are a complicated subject for many farmers in Wisconsin. Rural communities swung hard for Donald Trump in 2016 and contributed to his victory. Janet supports the president, but she's worried.

CLARK: How much time do some of us dairy farmers have? We've already lost a lot of dairy farmers along the way. He's in the - he's going to be the president for the next couple of years, so that is what we have to give him the time of. And, hopefully - that what he's doing is making the right decisions. And I think he's going to be a good leader in what he does.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: To get the pulse of the rural vote, and some chocolate-covered fresh gouda on a stick, we head to an important event for anyone who deals with cattle.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Welcome to the state fair. Have a fair-tastic time and a wonder-fair evening.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: At the Wisconsin State Fair, farmers from across the state are showing off their prize steers. They're getting full beauty treatments - blowouts, hairspray. Their coats are downy and fluffy. And, to be honest, I have never seen more beautiful cattle in all my life. That's where we meet 70-year-old Dan Angotti, wearing denim overalls and a baseball cap. He's from...

DAN ANGOTTI: A little town called Freedom in Outagamie County.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Oh really? It's called Freedom? That's great.

ANGOTTI: Yup.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How did it get that name?

ANGOTTI: (Laughing) I don't know.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And he says, when it comes to trade, it was time to shake things up.

ANGOTTI: Everybody's been getting away with everything for so long. And the United States is - I believe it will get straightened out. And it will.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How much time do you think farmers will give him? How much time will you give him?

ANGOTTI: Me? As long as it takes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So I take it you're a supporter of the president?

ANGOTTI: He's our president. I will support him.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But a few stalls down, Jeff Leahy from Lafayette County feels that the farming community is paying an unfair price for the president's strategy.

JEFF LEAHY: They're using ag as leverage, and that's not fair to us 'cause they're using us to get the other tariffs on metal and whatever other stuff that we're out of whack on. They're using food to do that, I think.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So, let me ask you, what do you think about the president's sort of strategy?

LEAHY: I think he did it too quick. You just can't go and say, I'm going to do this and not realize who it's going to effect.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A couple of weeks ago, the Trump administration announced up to $12 billion in emergency aid for farmers caught in the trade war. But farmers we talked to said they want trade, not aid.

LEAHY: Twelve billion dollars. But how are we going to get it? Who's going to get it?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: These farmers are a key constituency for the top two Republican candidates fighting to take on the incumbent, Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin. Leah Vukmir is one of them. And naturally, she's also at the state fair, where she's reaching out to potential voters for this Tuesday's primary elections.

LEAH VUKMIR: Well, thanks for saying hi. I do appreciate it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Oh, well it was very nice seeing you.

VUKMIR: Thank you. I'd love your support August 14.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Vukmir is a registered nurse and a state senator. She's got the establishment behind her. She's been endorsed by Wisconsin's own Paul Ryan, speaker of the House, and the state GOP. These days, if you're a Republican here, you have to be all in for Trump.

VUKMIR: I want America to succeed. And he is leading that charge. And that's why I want to stand with him in Washington to help.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She's also standing with him on tariffs.

VUKMIR: I'm amazed at the number of farmers who are telling me, we're already in a bad situation. If he can make it better, we're going to give him the benefit of the doubt, and we're going to give him the time.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Vukmir's chief rival is Kevin Nicholson. He's a decorated combat veteran and a business consultant. We meet him at another iconic political stop - Miss Katie's Diner in Milwaukee.

KEVIN NICHOLSON: It's clear as day this is what the president's trying to do - is let's bring our trade partners back to the negotiation table and eliminate all tariffs.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: On the menu, the corned beef hash skillet they served to Hillary Clinton and the bacon skillet they served to then-candidate Donald Trump. Safe to say that Nicholson was into the bacon skillet. But Nicholson echoes what his opponent says on trade.

NICHOLSON: What I would point out is the status quo is unsustainable for the people of Wisconsin. The status quo that says Canada, EU, China, India are allowed to slap tariffs or to engineer their economies in such a way that they protect their own industries while we do not do the same - that's what's really been bad for the people of Wisconsin. And that's what needs to change.

TAMMY BALDWIN: They have been drafted into a trade war that was not of their making.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Democrat Tammy Baldwin, the senator they're hoping to unseat, has fought Trump on his tariffs every step of the way. She's one of the 10 Senate Democrats running for re-election in states that went for Trump. Republicans across the country are pouring millions of dollars into the race to defeat Baldwin. And her position on tariffs is a stark contrast with her GOP rivals.

BALDWIN: Canada and Mexico and the European Union are not the problem. And the idea that Trump administration has decided to not exempt those countries is - it defies imagination, and it's not smart trade policy. In fact, it's leading to this trade war.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She thinks Trump and the GOP are out of touch with rural voters now.

BALDWIN: I think the situation is urgent. I don't hear those who are living on the brink right now saying, we can stand much longer.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But for Baldwin to win, it isn't just farmers she needs. She has to bring in another crucial demographic - African-American voters. Elsewhere in the show, we'll head to Milwaukee and hear from them. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.