Breaking: Federal District Court Finds Major Security Flaws with Georgia’s Voting Machines (BMDs), Heavily Criticizing State and Manufacturer, But Denies Preliminary Injunction Because It is Too Late to Grant Such Relief for November

147-page district court opinion that begins with a quote from “Groundhog Day” and ends with this:

Plaintiffs’ challenge to the State of Georgia’s new ballot marking device QR barcode-based computer voting system and its scanner and associated software presents serious system security vulnerability and operational issues that may place Plaintiffs and other voters at risk of deprivation of their fundamental right to cast an effective vote that is accurately counted. While these risks might appear theoretical to some, Plaintiffs have shown how voting equipment and voter registration database problems during the 2019 pilot elections and again in the June and August 2020 primary elections caused severe breakdowns at the polls, severely burdening voters’ exercise of the franchise. (See September 28, 2020 Order, Doc. 918.) 

Established Supreme Court authority recognizes that States retain the authority and power to regulate their elections and the voting process itself, subject to the preservation of citizens’ fundamental First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. And the Supreme Court has repeatedly emphasized in the last months the principle that district courts must exercise great restraint in considering the grant of injunctive relief that requires major new electoral rules on the cusp of an election where a court’s order could cause electoral disruption and potential voter confusion. The posture of this case collides with this latter principle. The sweeping injunctive relief that Plaintiffs seek would require immediate abandonment of the ballot marking device voting system enacted by the Georgia Legislature in 2019 that is in its first year of implementation by the Secretary of State pursuant to his authority under Georgia law. Though major difficulties have arisen during the course of this new system’s rocky first year, the Court recognizes that the staff of the Secretary of State’s Office and county election offices have worked hard to roll out the system in short order during a Covid-19 pandemic era that presents unique hurdles. That hard work though does not answer the fundamental deficits and exposure in the system challenged by Plaintiffs. 

Thus, although Plaintiffs have put on a strong case indicating they may prevail on the merits at some future juncture, the Court must exercise real caution in considering the grant of their request for extraordinary injunctive relief, given its obligation to follow governing Supreme Court and Eleventh Circuit authority. Despite the profound issues raised by the Plaintiffs, the Court cannot jump off the legal edge and potentially trigger major disruption in the legally established state primary process governing the conduct of elections based on a preliminary evidentiary record. The capacity of county election systems and poll workers, much less the Secretary of State’s Office, to turn on a dime and switch to a full-scale hand-marked paper ballot system is contradicted by the entire messy electoral record of the past years. Implementation of such a sudden systemic change under these circumstances cannot but cause voter confusion and some real measure of electoral disruption. As with any systemic change, implementation of a statewide hand-marked paper ballot system as the State’s primary electoral system would require long term planning and advanced poll worker training. Accordingly, based on the binding appellate legal authority, the State’s strong legal interest in ensuring an orderly and manageable administration of the current election, and the Court’s assessment of the operational realities before it, the Court must deny the Plaintiffs’ Motions for Preliminary Injunctive Relief in so far as they request immediate replacement of the current BMD system with a statewide hand-marked paper ballot system. 

But the Court cannot part with that message alone. The Court’s Order has delved deep into the true risks posed by the new BMD voting system as well as its manner of implementation. These risks are neither hypothetical nor remote under the current circumstances. The insularity of the Defendants’ and Dominion’s stance here in evaluation and management of the security and vulnerability of the BMD system does not benefit the public or citizens’ confident exercise of the franchise. The stealth vote alteration or operational interference risks posed by malware that can be effectively invisible to detection, whether intentionally seeded or not, are high once implanted, if equipment and software systems are not properly protected, implemented, and audited. The modality of the BMD systems’ capacity to deprive voters of their cast votes without burden, long wait times, and insecurity regarding how their votes are actually cast and recorded in the unverified QR code makes the potential constitutional deprivation less transparently visible as well, at least until any portions of the system implode 

because of system breach, breakdown, or crashes. Any operational shortcuts now in setting up or running election equipment or software creates other risks that can adversely impact the voting process. 

The Plaintiffs’ national cybersecurity experts convincingly present evidence that this is not a question of “might this actually ever happen?” – but “when it will happen,” especially if further protective measures are not taken. Given the masking nature of malware and the current systems described here, if the State and Dominion simply stand by and say, “we have never seen it,” the future does not bode well. 

Still, this is year one for Georgia in implementation of this new BMD system as the first state in the nation to embrace statewide implementation of this QR barcode-based BMD system for its entire population. Electoral dysfunction – cyber or otherwise – should not be desired as a mode of proof. It may well land unfortunately on the State’s doorstep. The Court certainly hopes not. 

The Court recognizes the major challenges facing the Secretary of State’s Office in rapidly implementing a new statewide voting system. Yet the vital issues identified in this case will not disappear or be appropriately addressed without focused State attention, resources, ongoing serious evaluation by independent cybersecurity experts, and open-mindedness. The Secretary of State and Dominion are obviously not without resources to tackle these issues. And at very least, the Court cannot fathom why, post-election, the State and Dominion would not at least be moving toward consideration of the software upgrade option Dominion 

originally promised, allowing voters to cast ballots that are solely counted based on their voting designations and not on an unencrypted, humanly unverifiable QR code that can be subject to external manipulation and does not allow proper voter verification and ballot vote auditing. 

Time will tell whether Act V here can be still avoided or at least re-written. 

For the foregoing reasons, the Court DENIES the Curling Plaintiffs’ Motion for Preliminary Injunction [Doc. 785] and DENIES IN PART AND GRANTS IN PART the Coalition Plaintiffs’ Motion for Preliminary Injunction on BMDs, Scanners, and Tabulators, and Audits [Doc. 809]. 

(Here’s how the court described the part of the injunction being granted: For the reasons discussed in Section III D, the Coalition Plaintiffs’ Motion is GRANTED IN PART in connection with the scanner/tabulator settings in tandem with Dominion’s adjudication software that as currently configured allow certain voter marks on hand-marked absentee and provisional ballots to disregarded and not be counted.  

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