Representatives from the Georgia Secretary of State's office and Dominion Voting Systems appear before a Georgia Senate committee to answer questions about an election system software update.

Representatives from the Georgia Secretary of State's office and Dominion Voting Systems appear before a Georgia Senate committee to answer questions about an election system software update.

Credit: Georgia State Senate

Some Republican state lawmakers used a Wednesday Senate Ethics Committee hearing to air continued grievances against Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and question how elections officials are handling a security update to the state's election system.

The committee, chaired by Sen. Max Burns (R-Sylvania), met for more than three hours to discuss the Secretary of State's office decision to wait to fully upgrade the Dominion Voting Systems election equipment to a version that addresses potential vulnerabilities outlined in a report by a computer science researcher who was given unfettered access to Georgia's machines as part of a yearslong lawsuit challenging the state's electronic voting method.

"We're not here to second-guess, we're not here to point fingers, we're not here to attack," Burns said at the start of the meeting. "I want to go on record as saying I have complete confidence in the Georgia voting system as it exists today. I choose to vote utilizing the standard system."

But much of the questioning from Republicans on the committee sought to second-guess the decision to pilot the software upgrade in five counties holding municipal elections this November and pointed fingers at Raffensperger for alleged lapses in election security. They also attacked Raffensperger for not attending the hearing and other budgetary and legislative gatherings in the past.

At issue is an upgrade to the state's voting system that was prompted by a pair of reports — one from J. Alex Halderman, an expert witness in a yearslong lawsuit filed by a group seeking to move Georgia to hand-marked paper ballots, and the other from the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.

Halderman's 2021 report, compiled after examining the system for several months in a non-election laboratory environment and released earlier this year, identified several vulnerabilities with Dominion's software and machines that could potentially lead to someone exploiting parts of the election system. The 2022 CISA report also listed nine vulnerabilities that jurisdictions using the Dominion equipment should be aware of.

Both Halderman and CISA have said there was no evidence that the 2020 election saw tampering with Georgia's election equipment or results because of these vulnerabilities.

State officials have repeatedly said that an array of security practices and other measures that are put in place around elections already mitigate the threats outlined, calling Halderman's outlined risks "theoretical and imaginary."

Nevertheless, a newer version of Dominion's software addressing the vulnerabilities was released and approved by the Election Assistance Commission in March 2023, and the state began its process to certify the software, including testing by an independent lab. Raffensperger provisionally certified the new software, Democracy Suite version 5.17, and selected five counties to pilot the update in the 2023 municipal elections, with the intent of upgrading all 159 counties after the 2024 election cycle.

Charlene McGowan, general counsel for the Secretary of State's office, said the pilot is a critical piece of the certification process to understand how the software performs in a real-world election, and explained updating the entire state's 40,000 ballot-marking devices, scanners and election management servers and testing to make sure it works properly will take a lot of time.

"Because our system is not connected to the internet, we can't just push a button and send an update out," she said. "So when people might reasonably raise the question of 'Why, if this upgrade is available, have we not moved forward with already having it done?' I have given you the 40,000 reasons why we have not been able to do it up to this date, because there is a process that we have to follow that we are working through that is required by law and we feel it is the the responsible and reasonable course of action."

Still, some lawmakers present were skeptical of the state's answer and of Dominion's testing process that missed the vulnerabilities in the first place, arguing that the secretary of state's office should have implemented the upgrade sooner.

"I think the concern that we have is there's a fix available that addresses all nine of these vulnerabilities, and we're not going to install this fix for a presidential primary or for primaries next year or for the general election," Sen. Greg Dolezal (R-Cumming) said. "And our answer is... 'We know that everybody has a copy of the key to the front door, we're not going to change the locks, because we can catch them before they get out the back."

Dolezal also grilled a Dominion representative present at the hearing, accusing the company of "incompetence" in their testing and said the response to the vulnerabilities was "unacceptable."

The GOP-dominated committee also discussed several changes they would like to see made to Georgia's voting system, including a visible security mark on ballots, removing the QR codes from the printed ballots (codes that are how the voter's choices are scanned and counted) and seeing the update installed in more counties before the 2024 election cycle.

Many Republicans in the state senate and on the Ethics Committee have an adversarial relationship with Raffensperger and how way Georgia's Republican-created election laws have worked in recent years, exacerbated by several members taking on high-profile efforts to undermine and overturn the 2020 presidential election results.

The state Senate is led by Lt. Gov. Burt Jones (R-Jackson), an unindicted alleged co-conspirator in the massive election interference racketeering case in Fulton County that has charged former President Donald Trump and 18 others for their roles in the failed attempt to undo his defeat, and some of the committee members were present at legislative hearings where Rudy Giuliani and others made false claims about Georgia's election system and results that has led to several of the indictments and one guilty plea so far.

Sen. Rick Williams (R-Milledgeville), who was in the House during 2020 and signed onto a brief supporting a failed U.S. Supreme Court case from Texas that sought to nullify the 2020 election results of four states including Georgia, falsely claimed the QR codes on the ballots could be used to identify specific voters and asked a local elections director about "breakdowns and some communication problems" between the state and local elections offices. 

Sen. Brandon Beach (R-Alpharetta), who was stripped of his committee chairmanship in 2021 for his role in seeking to overturn the election, said his constituents don't trust the election system. He also asked why Georgia needed the QR code and wondered why the state couldn't use artificial intelligence to upgrade the machines sooner. (The secretary of state's office reiterated that the election system is not connected to the internet and updates would have to be done physically in person.)

Sen. Randy Robertson (R-Cataula), who also signed the Texas brief, accused the secretary of state of being absent when it came to dealing with the Senate, including not being present for the meeting Wednesday.

"The individual who's elected to hold that office is a ghost," he said. "And today he's at a rotary meeting to speak down in South Georgia. And he knew about this, the chairman notified him of this a month ago. But I I'll be honest with you: I'll give him the benefit of the doubt. If that rotary meeting was more important than coming up here and speaking in front of the Georgia citizens that are watching this, then that's his burden to bear."

The secretary of state's office said that the Senate knew Raffensperger's visit to Albany was a longstanding commitment and the lawmakers did not consult with them to find an alternate date.

In a press conference held just before the meeting, Gabriel Sterling with the secretary of state's office held up a $2,700 restitution check from lawyer Sidney Powell, who pleaded guilty for her role in a plot that saw election data illegally copied from Coffee County, as part of a message that Georgia elections are secure and that the people of Georgia — including state lawmakers — should be focused on the future.

"We need to move on to have elections not about stolen elections," Sterling said. "We have to have a politics based in truth and accountability."

After the five counties piloting the update conclude their municipal elections later this year, state officials will take what they learned and incorporate it into the larger rollout plan, which is still slated to happen after 2024, state elections director Blake Evans said during the hearing.

"I don't want to give a a final summary because we still have Election Day to go, but we've learned some things that will be useful when we do end up taking an upgrade or new installation statewide," Evans said.

Preparations for the 2024 election cycle are already underway, made further complicated by a recent federal court ruling that will see lawmakers return to the Capitol starting Nov. 29 to redraw the state's congressional and legislative political boundaries after a judge found the current maps discriminatory against Black voters.