“The missing context in the debate about Halderman’s Dominion report”

Jessica Huseman Votebeat column:

Experts who have reviewed Halderman’s report, such as Juan Gilbert, the University of Florida’s computer science department chair, have not found it to be nearly as dire as Halderman has publicly suggested. As part of the suit, Judge Totenberg granted Halderman unfettered access to the Dominion voting system in order to inspect the security of the machines. Because of his access, Totenberg sealed the report, making it available to only the attorneys on the case and the expert witnesses. And even though the state on Thursday asked Totenberg to unseal the document so as to clear public confusion, she seemed unready to do so. 

“I’m unhappy about the course of political treatment of the report…. it’s out of hand,” Totenberg said in court. “But I’m not going to release it without seeing what is being proposed with redactions.”

Still, the general contents of the report aren’t exactly a secret. Halderman has long claimed that ballot-marking devices could be manipulated by malicious actors. In a brief no one asked him to write, Halderman made public a high-level summary of his findings in early August. Marilyn Marks, the executive director of the Coalition for Good Governance who is among the plaintiffs in the Curling case, then distributed this summary to every county in Georgia by email the day after Halderman filed his report. Votebeat was provided with a copy of the email. She called Halderman’s finding an “urgent concern,” alarming enough for counties “to reconsider their use of BMDs this fall, and instead use hand marked paper ballots with voluntary robust audits.” No county acted on her warning.

Despite Judge Totenberg sealing Halderman’s assessment, the publicity campaign the plaintiffs have mounted over the report — which none of them has seen in full — has resulted in two media dustups over its contents, to the obvious discontent of Totenberg. The first was in August, when Halderman first publicized what he claimed were massive security flaws in the system, and then this week, when the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that the state had done nothing to unseal the report or to act on its findings. This is the exact kind of speculation Totenberg sought to prevent when she sealed the report. While the report has only been read by Halderman, the lawyers in the Curling case, and other expert witnesses, the AJC quoted multiple people who have no knowledge of the report’s details but who nonetheless implored the state to act. That’s not the responsible way to present these issues. 

The report, as far as is publicly known, does little to materially advance what Halderman has been claiming about ballot-marking devices for years. And, it’s not a surprise that he found ways to infiltrate the system. Judge Totenberg gave Halderman complete access to the machines along with passwords, and his report indicates that he did his research over 12 weeks. If you gave me access to a bank for 12 weeks, handed me the keys, and told the security guards to stand down, I’m pretty sure I could rob it. This is an unrealistic threat scenario that ignores the existence of physical security measures, machine testing, and risk limiting audits….

Allowing such unfettered access isn’t without value: If Halderman had, for example, been able to affect the ballots in a way that could not be detected and prevented by safeguards like risk limiting audits or standard quality checks, these problems should be addressed. But neither the AJC article nor those who have seen the report assert that he found such vulnerabilities. 

Still, folks are clamoring to get access to Halderman’s sealed report. The state of Louisiana, Fox News, and One America News Network have all asked Judge Totenberg to see it. Louisiana — which has already been denied access — says it wants a copy because it’s considering buying a Dominion system and would like to see what the vulnerabilities are. Fox and OANN want it because they think it might contradict Halderman’s testimony in defamation lawsuits filed by Dominion and by Eric Coomer, a former Dominion employee. In that case, Halderman testified in defense of Coomer and his work at Dominion — Coomer’s work was high quality, Halderman says, and there is no evidence that Dominion machines were compromised.

Despite what Fox News’s lawyers might hope, Halderman’s positions in each lawsuit are not necessarily contradictory. It could well be true that the 2020 election was secure — as he asserts in the Fox defamation suit — and that untapped vulnerabilities still exist in Dominion systems — as he asserts in the Curling suit.

But this is not the only time right-wing spreaders of the Big Lie have embraced the Curling lawsuit to back their false claims. A week ago, Politico reported on the text of a never-seen Trump executive order that would have dispatched the military to seize voting machines. The order, dated Dec. 16, 2020, specifically references the Curling lawsuit in justifying the federal government to “seize, collect, retain and analyze all machines, equipment, electronically stored information, and material records” from the election. The order would have given the defense secretary 60 days to release a report on the machines’ security — a move that would have thrown the election into uncertainty well into February 2021….

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