Politics & Government

Election security could be an issue for Georgia’s Kemp

Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams smiles before speaking to supporters during an election-night watch party, Tuesday, May 22, 2018, in Atlanta.
Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams smiles before speaking to supporters during an election-night watch party, Tuesday, May 22, 2018, in Atlanta. AP

Backers of Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams are mobilizing to make Republican Brian Kemp’s past as Georgia’s secretary of state a major campaign issue.

A spokesman for Abrams, who is vying to become the nation’s first African American female governor, wouldn’t say whether she’d personally make Kemp’s record on election security an issue.

She doesn’t have to, since others may do it for her.

Although the NAACP doesn’t endorse political candidates, Kemp’s stewardship of Georgia’s voting system has “raised some red flags” for the civil rights organization, said Hilary Shelton, director of the group’s Washington bureau. He isn’t alone.

Former Rep. John Barrow, D-Ga., is using the issue in his campaign against Republican Georgia State Rep. Brad Raffensperger to succeed Kemp as secretary of state. Barrow said Kemp has “provided no leadership, none” on the issue.

“If Mr. Kemp wants to scrape that responsibility off the bottom of his boot like you-know-what, that’s fine, but somebody’s got to do that job,” Barrow said. “We already know the Russians can break into our system because good guys have done it just to show it can be done to alert us to it, and the response of the state has been to make that guy out to be the bad guy.”

Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s recent indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officers indicated that election systems in some Georgia counties were targeted.

For some Georgia activists, that validated existing concerns about voting security in the state.

Daniel Franklin, a political science professor at Georgia State University, said the issue could have an impact in November.

“If Stacey manages to convince Georgia that Kemp was incompetent at the one thing that he had to do as secretary of state, which is monitor the election … some Republican voters might not turn out to the polls,” he said.

Sara Henderson, the executive director of Common Cause Georgia, a government watchdog group, said Kemp has done little to encourage elections officials to address possible Russian interference.

“People feel like that’s still very much conspiracy theory,” she said. “And when we have our own secretary of state who’s saying, in so many words, that that’s conspiracy theory that trickles down to poll workers...and everybody who runs the elections process.”

Ryan Mahoney, a Kemp campaign spokesman, had a different view.

“According to the Department of Homeland Security, Georgia was not targeted by Russia or any other bad actors during the 2016 presidential election,” Mahoney said.

Under Kemp, “Georgia launched online voter registration, enhanced cybersecurity, implemented voter ID and citizenship check laws, and stopped radical groups from undermining the democratic process,” Mahoney wrote in an email.

Before his primary runoff against Republican Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle Tuesday, Kemp was endorsed by President Donald Trump, who has on several occasions questioned whether Russia was involved in hacking the 2016 election.

In 2017, Logan Lamb, a researcher for online security firm Bastille, found he was able to download the state’s voter database, and that he could have manipulated the version that was sent to counties across the state.

Georgia is one of the few states that utilizes electronic voting machines that do not produce a paper record, making results difficult to audit.

Kemp has been an outspoken critic of federal Department of Homeland Security efforts to monitor state election system security. Kemp dubbed DHS plans to designate election systems “critical infrastructure” an example of federal government overreach.

In December 2017, Kemp accused DHS of trying to penetrate the Georgia secretary of state’s firewall.”

He said it was a retaliation from DHS since the state turned down some of its election security assistance. An investigation from the DHS inspector general, who is independent from the department’s chain of command, found that the traffic Kemp cited was nothing out of the ordinary.

Even if Abrams herself doesn’t force the issue, her surrogates could.

Rep. Hank Johnson., D-Ga., an Abrams supporter and member of the Congressional Black Caucus and the House Judiciary Committee, said Kemp failed to safeguard Georgia’s voting, turning down assistance from the Department of Homeland Security that other states accepted.

“To just chalk it up as mere partisan politics and to refuse to take it seriously, I think, was a grievous error on his part,” Johnson said.

Candice Broce, a spokeswoman for the secretary of state’s office, said some DHS assistance was turned down, but it was because the state was already using private vendors to meet their needs.

“We were already conducting assessments, monitoring, and testing by the time that the Department of Homeland Security began offering these services to states. The fact that we already engaged these vendors meant that we received better, quicker service than DHS was initially able to offer,” Broce wrote in an email.

Scott McConnell, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security’s National Protection and Programs Directorate, said it lets states decide how much to disclose about the aid they receive.

Will Walton, a 26-year-old voter living in Athens, said the issue should be a call to action.

“That whole messed up voter suppression that Georgia has going on -- that’s him. And he’s the person that could potentially become our governor if we don’t get active,” Walton said.

Christine Condon: @cchristine19