ATLANTA – Sensitive passwords for voting systems published online. Copies of confidential voting software available for download. Ballot counting machines controlled by people not supposed to have access.
The list of alleged security breaches at local polling stations since the 2020 election continues to grow, and investigations are ongoing in at least three states – Colorado, Georgia and Michigan. The stakes appeared to be rising this week when the existence of a federal investigation involving a prominent supporter of former President Donald Trump, which has been spreading conspiracy theories about voting machines across the country, came to light.
While much remains unknown about the investigation, one of the most pressing questions is what all this could mean for the safety of voting machines with the midterm elections less than two months away.
Election security experts say the breaches in themselves have not necessarily increased threats to November’s election. Already suspecting that hostile foreign governments might possess the sensitive data, election officials are taking precautions to protect their voting systems.
The more immediate concern is the possibility that renegade poll workers, including those sympathetic to lies about the 2020 presidential election, could use their access to voting equipment and the knowledge gleaned from the violations to launch an attack from within. This could aim to give their preferred candidate or their party an advantage, or introduce systemic problems that would sow further distrust in the election results.
In some of the alleged security breaches, authorities are investigating whether local officials gave unauthorized access to people copying software and hard drive data, and in several cases gave it publicly.
After the Georgia break-in, a group of poll security experts said the unauthorized copying and sharing of polling data from rural Coffee County posed a “serious threat” to the November election. They called on the state electoral commission to replace the touchscreen devices used nationwide and to use only handwritten ballots.
Harri Hursti, a leading expert on election security, said he was concerned about further use of the breached data. Access to the voting machines’ data or software could be used to develop a realistic-looking video of someone claiming to have rigged a voting system, he said.
Such a fake video, posted online or on social media on or after Election Day, could throw an election office into chaos and prompt voters to question the accuracy of the results.
“Once you have these villain images, you can now start fabricating false, compelling evidence — false evidence of wrongdoing that never happened,” Hursti said. “You can start creating very compelling imaginary evidence.”
There is no evidence that voting machines were tampered with in either the 2020 election or this year’s primaries. But conspiracy theories rife among some conservatives have led to calls to replace the machines with hand-marked and hand-counted ballots and concerns that they could be attacked by people working at polling stations or at polling stations.
The alleged violations appear to be orchestrated or encouraged by people falsely claiming the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. In several cases, employees of local electoral offices or electoral boards have given unauthorized persons access to voting systems. The incidents came to public attention after the Mesa County, Colorado voting system passwords were leaked online, leading to a local investigation and a successful attempt to replace the county clerk from overseeing the elections.
Mike Lindell, CEO of MyPillow, who has organized or attended forums around the United States that have peddled conspiracy theories about voting machines, said this week that he received a subpoena from a federal grand jury investigating the violation in Colorado, and was asked to turn over his cellphone to FBI agents who approached him at a Minnesota fast-food restaurant.
“And they told me not to tell anyone,” Lindell said in a video afterwards. “Okay, I won’t. But I am.”
Lindell and others have toured the country over the past year holding events where attendees have been told that voting machines have been corrupted, that officials are being “chosen” rather than elected, and that widespread fraud has cost Trump the 2020 election.
In an interview with the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, Lindell said FBI agents questioned him about the Colorado breach and the Dominion voting system. The company supplies voting equipment used in about 30 states and has targeted its machines in the violations in Colorado, Georgia and Michigan.
When agents asked him why he was flying back and forth between states, Linden told them, “I go to attorney generals and politicians and try to get them to get rid of these voting machines in our country.”
The Justice Department did not respond when asked for details of its investigation.
Dominion has sued Lindell and others, alleging defamation. In a statement this week, the company said it would not comment on ongoing investigations but said its systems were secure. It noted that no credible evidence was presented that its machines “did anything other than accurately and reliably count votes across the states.”
The scope of the Colorado federal grand jury investigation is unknown, but local authorities have indicted Mesa County employee Tina Peters in what they described as a “deceptive scheme” designed to influence officials’ safety protocols violating and exceeding permitted access to voting equipment and the eventual disclosure of confidential information to unauthorized persons.”
Peters pleaded not guilty and said she has the authority to investigate concerns that voting equipment had been tampered with. She has appeared at numerous events with Lindell over the past year, including Lindell’s “cybersymposium” last August, which distributed a digital copy of Mesa County’s election administration system.
David Becker, a former US Department of Justice attorney who now heads the Center for Voting Innovation and Research, notes the irony of those who are sounding the alarm that voting machines are implicated in allegations of violations of the same systems.
“The people who attacked the integrity of the elections are destroying the actual integrity of the elections,” he said.
Associated Press writer Michael Balsamo contributed to this report.