Sixteen months ago, Marilyn Marks was just another political junkie watching a high-profile congressional election on her laptop when she saw something she found abnormal and alarming. The date was 18 April 2017, and the election was in Georgia’s sixth congressional district, where the Democrats were hoping to pull off an upset victory against a crowded Republican field in the wake of Tom Price’s (short-lived) elevation to the Trump cabinet as health and human services secretary. By mid-evening, Jon Ossoff, the leading Democrat, had 50.3% of the vote, enough to win outright without the need for a run-off against his closest Republican challenger. Then Marks noticed that the number of precincts reporting in Fulton County, encompassing the heart of Atlanta, was going down instead of up. Soon after, the computers crashed. Election officials later blamed a “rare error” with a memory card that didn’t properly upload its vote tallies. When the count resumed more than an hour later, Ossoff was suddenly down to 48.6% and ended up at 48.1%. (He lost in the run-off to Republican Karen Handel.)
Marks was not rooting for Ossoff – she is a registered Republican and lives in North Carolina, two states to the north – but she cared deeply about the integrity of the vote and she knew that Georgia’s 15-year-old all-electronic voting system was almost impossible to audit because it produced no independently verifiable paper trail to check against the computer-generated tallies.
Was Ossoff robbed, or did the system right whatever went wrong? The point, Marks felt, was that it was impossible to be sure.
Cybersecurity experts have warned for years that malfeasance, technical breakdown or administrative incompetence could easily wreak havoc with electronic systems and could go largely or wholly undetected. This is a concern made much more urgent by Russia’s cyber-attacks on political party servers and state voter registration databases in 2016 and by the risk of a repeat – or worse – in this November’s midterms.
“The moment the machines went down, that’s when I decided I was going to work in Georgia,” Marks said. And she didn’t know the half of it yet.