Some Republicans still press for changes to further protect Georgia voting system amid criticism

ATLANTA (AP) — Some Republican lawmakers continued to press Wednesday for changes to protect Georgia's voting system from security weaknesses, but a deputy to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger accused them of acting in bad faith and promoting lies that Georgia's 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump.

The dispute with some Republicans in the state Senate stems from vulnerabilities in Dominion Voting Systems equipment identified by J. Alex Halderman, an expert witness in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Georgia’s election system.

Halderman has said he's seen no evidence the vulnerabilities were exploited to change the outcome of past elections.

The U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency last year published an advisory based on those findings that urges election officials to take steps to mitigate the risks “as soon as possible.”

Officials in Raffensperger's office, including Chief Operating Officer Gabriel Sterling, argued Wednesday that the office is working to solve the defects. However, they say it's impractical to update all 40,000 electronic voting machines and scanners statewide before the 2024 election cycle begins. That's because none of those machines are connected to the internet, and software has to physically be installed by hand on each one.

“We take security very seriously. We’re taking responsible steps to keep our elections secure," Sterling said at a news conference Wednesday.

Raffensperger's office argues that the risks are unlikely to lead to mass fraud because an attacker must gain physical access to multiple machines and counties keep machines locked away, although Halderman says a hacker might also sabotage software files sent out by officials.

“We're taking a responsible and methodical way of proceeding. The risks outlined in the CISA report and the analysis report are hypothetical scenarios that can't work," Sterling said, adding that those who oppose what Raffensperger is doing "want to see failure.”

But Republicans who questioned other officials from Raffensperger’s office at a Senate Ethics Committee hearing were unimpressed. They argue the state should have moved more quickly to update the software.

“We can’t wait until after 2024 in my opinion," said Sen. Brandon Beach, an Alpharetta Republican.

Sen. Greg Dolezal, a Cumming Republican, said Dominion failed the state when it wrote a software update incompatible with the separate computers used to check in voters at polling places and provide them with ballots coded to electronic cards. He said relying on other methods to catch attacks on software flaws is the wrong move.

“We know that everyone has a key to the front door, but we’re not going to change the locks because we know that we can catch them before they get out the back door,” Dolezal said.

Senate Ethics Committee Chairman Max Burns, a Sylvania Republican, said at the end of the hearing he wanted to see changes. That, he said, includes trying to update the software in at least some counties before 2024, removing QR codes on ballots that are now used to count votes in favor of counting using printed text, and placing security watermarks on all ballots so people could easily tell if ballots are authentic. Burns also suggested that counties could perform hand counts in addition to the state mandated machine counts if they wanted.

Raffensperger was also attacked for not personally attending Wednesday's meeting and prior legislative hearings.

“The person elected to hold that office is a ghost," said Sen. Randy Robertson, a Cataula Republican.

His staff said Raffensperger was visiting elections offices and giving a speech to a Rotary Club that was scheduled before senators called the hearing.

Fueling interest in voting changes are Republican Party activists who say that Georgia's 16 electoral votes were stolen from Trump in 2020. Many blame Dominion's machines, despite no meaningful evidence to support that claim. They demand to vote on paper ballots and to have those ballots counted by hand.

But officials with Raffensperger's office said some senators questioning Georgia's election system on Wednesday also attended hearings in late 2020 where Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani and others made false claims about fraud. Of 18 people accused along with Trump of conspiring to overturn the 2020 election in a Fulton County indictment, Giuliani, John Eastman, Jenna Ellis, Ray Smith and Robert Cheeley were specifically indicted for making false statements to lawmakers in 2020 hearings.

Ellis pleaded guilty on Oct. 24 to a felony charge of aiding and abetting false statements and writings. The other four have pleaded not guilty

At least three Republican senators present for one of those hearings — Dolezal, Beach and Steve Gooch of Dahlonega — were present Wednesday.

“We need to move on and not have elections not about stolen elections," Sterling said Wednesday, calling for a politics based on “truth and accountability” as he held up a $2,700 restitution check from Sidney Powell, another of the four defendants in the Georgia case who has pleaded guilty.