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Georgia voting system under scrutiny as trial over constitutional challenge draws near

Some Georgia citizens are concerned about the integrity of state elections, saying that vulnerabilities pose an unconstitutional burden on the fundamental right to vote.

Opening statements are expected Tuesday as the trial in a long-running legal challenge to the constitutionality of Georgia's election system begins in federal court in Atlanta.

Election integrity activists argue the system is vulnerable to attack and has operational issues that amount to an unconstitutional burden on citizens' fundamental right to vote and to have their votes counted accurately. State election officials insist that they've taken appropriate protective measures and that the system is reliable.

The case stems from a lawsuit originally filed in 2017 by election integrity activists — individual voters and the Coalition for Good Governance, which advocates for election security and integrity. It initially attacked the outdated, paperless voting machines used at the time but has since been amended to target the newer machines in use statewide since 2020.

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That newer system, made by Dominion Voting Systems, includes touchscreen voting machines that print ballots with a human-readable summary of voters’ selections and a QR code that a scanner reads to count the votes. The activists argue the current system is no more secure or reliable than the old system and are asking U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg to order the state to stop using it.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has repeatedly defended the system and has dismissed the concerns raised by the activists as unfounded. He and his lawyers have at times lumped the plaintiffs in this lawsuit in with supporters of former President Donald Trump who have pushed false allegations of election fraud after the 2020 election, including outlandish claims about the Dominion voting machines.

"Georgia’s election security practices are top-tier. Casting doubt on Georgia’s elections, which these plaintiffs and deniers are doing, is really trying to cast doubt on all elections. That is dangerous and wrong," secretary of state's office spokesperson Mike Hassinger said in an emailed statement Monday. "Our office continues to beat election deniers in court, in elections, and will ultimately win this case in the end as well."

Totenberg, who has expressed concerns about the state's election system and its implementation, wrote in a footnote in an October order that the evidence in this case "does not suggest that the Plaintiffs are conspiracy theorists of any variety. Indeed, some of the nation’s leading cybersecurity experts and computer scientists have provided testimony and affidavits on behalf of Plaintiffs’ case in the long course of this litigation."

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One of those experts, University of Michigan computer science expert J. Alex Halderman, examined a Georgia voting machine and wrote a lengthy report identifying vulnerabilities he said he found and detailing how they could be used to change election results. The U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, or CISA, in June 2022 released an advisory based on Halderman's findings that urged jurisdictions that use the machines to quickly mitigate the vulnerabilities.

Dominion, which has consistently insisted its equipment is accurate and secure, issued a software update last spring that it says addresses the concerns. Raffensperger has said the time and effort needed to install that update on every piece of voting equipment means it is not feasible before the 2024 election cycle.

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The plaintiffs and their experts have said they have seen no evidence that Georgia's elections have been manipulated by bad actors, but they argue existing security flaws must be addressed to prevent future harm. The need to act became more urgent after unauthorized people accessed voting equipment in a rural Georgia county elections office in January 2021 and distributed the software and data online, they argue.

The plaintiffs advocate the use of hand-marked paper ballots tallied by scanners. Totenberg already wrote in October that she cannot order the state to switch to a system that uses hand-marked paper ballots. But she wrote that she could order "pragmatic, sound remedial policy measures," including eliminating the QR codes on ballots, stronger cybersecurity measures and more robust audits.

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