The story of election tampering in one of the nation’s most important political battleground states involves a jailer, a prominent attorney tied to former President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election, and a cast of characters from a rural county which rarely attracts attention from outsiders.
How they all came together and what it could mean for voting security in the upcoming midterm elections are questions embroiled in a lawsuit and state investigations that have led to calls to phase out the machines altogether.
Details of the unauthorized access to sensitive election equipment in Coffee County, Georgia, emerged last month when documents and emails revealed the involvement of high-profile Trump supporters. That’s also when he caught the attention of an Atlanta-based prosecutor who is leading a separate investigation into Trump’s efforts to overturn his loss in the state.
Since then, revelations about what happened in the county of 43,000 people have raised questions about whether the Dominion Voting Systems machines used in Georgia have been hacked.
The public disclosure of the breach began with a strange phone call from an Atlanta-area bail bondsman to the head of an election security advocacy group involved in a long-running lawsuit targeting the state’s voting machines.
According to a recording filed in court earlier this year, the jailer said he had chartered a jet and was with a computer forensics team at the Coffee County election office when they “imaged every hard drive of every piece of equipment.”
This happened on January 7, 2021, one day after the violent riot at the US Capitol and two days after the runoff election in which Democrats swept both seats in the Georgia Senate.
The trip to Coffee County, about 200 miles south of Atlanta, to copy data and software from election equipment was directed by attorney Sidney Powell and other Trump allies, according to deposition testimony and documents produced in response to subpoenas.
Later that month, security camera footage shows two men involved in efforts to challenge the results of the 2020 election in several states spent days in and out of the Coffee County election office.
The video also shows local elections and Republican Party officials welcoming visitors and allowing them access to voting equipment. The video appears to contradict statements made by some of the officials about their apparent involvement.
The new information made Coffee County, where Trump won nearly 70 percent of the vote two years ago, a hotbed of concerns about voting machine security. While there is no evidence of widespread problems with voting equipment in 2020, some Trump supporters have spread false information about the machines and the election result.
Election security experts and activists fear that state election officials have not acted quickly enough in the face of what they see as a real threat.
Copying the software and making it available for download means potential bad actors could create exact copies of the Dominion system to try different types of attacks, said University of California, Berkeley computer scientist Philip Stark, an expert witness for the plaintiffs in the voting machines. treatment.
“It’s like bank robbers having an exact replica of the vault they’re trying to break into,” he said.
Stark said the risks could be minimized by using handwritten ballots and strict checks. Dominion says its equipment remains safe.
Marilyn Marks, executive director of the Coalition for Good Government, the group that sued the state’s voting machines, said the state was slow to investigate. It was at the end of the phone call from the jailer.
The state, he said, “repeatedly looks the other way when faced with flashing red lights due to serious election system security issues.”
State officials say they are confident the voting system is secure. All Coffee County voting equipment that had not already been replaced will be replaced before early voting begins next month, the secretary of state’s office said Friday.
State officials also noted that they were inundated with false claims after the 2020 election.
“In hindsight, you can say, what about this, this and this,” said Gabriel Sterling, a top official in the Georgia secretary of state’s office. “In real time, no, there was no reason to think that.”
In late January 2021, a few weeks after the computer forensics team visited, security video shows a secretary of state’s office investigator arriving at the Coffee County election office. He and the election supervisor enter the room that houses the election management system server. Seconds later, Jeff Lenberg, who has been identified by Michigan authorities as part of an attempt to gain access to voting machines there, is seen walking out of the room.
Asked if Lenberg’s presence in the room with sensitive election equipment raised concerns for the investigator, Secretary of State Mike Hasinger’s office spokesman said the investigator was investigating an unrelated matter and did not know who Lenberg was.
Security video also showed another man, Doug Logan, in the office in mid-January. Logan founded a company called Cyber Ninjas, which led a discredited assessment of the 2020 elections in Maricopa County, Arizona. In May 2021, Coffee County’s new supervisor of elections raised concerns with the secretary of state’s office after finding Logan’s business card through a computer. The election supervisor’s concerns were referred to an investigator, but he testified that no one ever contacted him.
Hassinger said the secretary of state’s office responds to allegations when they are raised, but that “information about unauthorized access to voting equipment in Coffee County has been withheld” from local officials and others.
Much of what is known was revealed through documents, security camera video and depositions produced in response to subpoenas in the lawsuit filed by individual voters and the election security advocacy group. The lawsuit claims Georgia’s touchscreen voting machines are unsafe and seeks to force the state to use handwritten ballots instead.
The recent evidence of a breach wasn’t the first sign of trouble in Coffee County, which has caused headaches for state election officials in the tumultuous weeks after the 2020 election. It’s possible the turmoil helped open the door for Trump allies.
In early December 2020, the county board of elections refused to certify the results of a mechanical recount requested by Trump, saying the election system had produced inaccurate results. A video posted online days later showed the county’s former supervisor of elections saying the election software could be tampered with. as she spoke, the password to the county’s election management system server was visible on a note taped to her computer.
In late December, Cathy Latham, the chairwoman of the Coffee County Republican Party, who was also a fake Trump voter, appeared at a state legislative committee hearing and made further claims that the voting machines were unreliable.
Within days of that hearing, Latham said, she was contacted by Scott Hall, the bail bondsman who was a Republican observer during an election count. Latham testified in a deposition that Hall asked her to connect him with the Coffee County Supervisor of Elections (who was later charged with falsifying time sheets and forced to resign).
A few days later, on Jan. 7, Hall met with a computer forensics team from data solutions firm SullivanStrickler at the Coffee County election office. The group copied the data and software on the election management system server and other components of the voting system, a company executive said in a filing. The company said it believed its customers had the necessary permission.
Invoices show the data company billed Powell $26,000 for the day’s work.
“Everything went smoothly yesterday with the Coffee County collection,” the company’s CEO wrote to Powell in an email. “Everyone involved was extremely helpful.”