With the clock winding down before Tuesday’s vote, Georgia’s chief elections officer, who is also running for governor, turned a report of an alleged vulnerability in the election system he oversees into a political weapon in a race he is hoping to win.
Republican Brian Kemp on Monday stood by his decision to level claims of attempted hacking at Democrats, turning their objections – and the concerns of nonpartisan civil rights groups – into an election eve selling point.
“I’m not worried about how it looks. I’m doing my job,” he said during a campaign stop in DeKalb County that he had been stuck with two bad options. “This is how we would handle any investigation when something like this comes up. Because I can assure you if I hadn’t done anything and the story came out that something was going on, you’d be going ‘Why didn’t you act?’”
Kemp’s decision to directly accuse the opposing party of wrongdoing while running for the state’s highest office has further inflamed deep-seated worries over voting rights in Georgia at the height of a historic campaign by his Democratic opponent, Stacey Abrams, to become the country’s black female governor. Amid the furor over the purported hacking, Kemp announced Monday that the state had not only broken its 2014 record, but has set a new, all-time record for early voting in a midterm election.
“The normal course of action would be that you investigate the vulnerability, fix it and then reassure the public. They seem to be doing it backwards,” Richard DeMillo, a Georgia Tech professor and one of the experts contacted by Georgia Democrats, told CNN on Monday. “Rather than addressing the substance of the vulnerability they’re assuming everything is fine and attacking the messenger.”
The last week of the campaign has included a robocall paid for by white supremacists crudely impersonating megastar Oprah Winfrey, who traveled last week to Georgia to campaign on Abrams’ behalf. Kemp denounced the robocall as “absolutely disgusting,” but has often trafficked in racial themes during the campaign, including a tweet late Monday tying Abrams to the Black Panthers.
His campaign has also falsely claimed Abrams encouraged undocumented immigrants to vote and dismissed as “outside agitators” critics alleging that he weaponized state law to suppress the minority vote.
Those charges escalated early last month after an Associated Press analysis of public records data found that Kemp’s office had put on hold more than 53,000 voter registrations – nearly 70% of them belonging to African Americans – because they failed to clear the state’s controversial “exact match” standard. A subsequent lawsuit led a federal judge to issue an injunction blocking the state from rejecting absentee ballots without taking added steps to notify voters and sort out any signature discrepancies.
Kemp on Sunday lit another fuse when his office issued an early morning bulletin that claimed, vaguely and without any proof, that there had been “a failed attempt to hack the state’s voter registration system.” It added, with no further explanation, that the Democratic Party of Georgia had been placed under investigation the night before in connection with the failed breach.
In reality, a Georgia citizen had discovered what he believed was a flaw in the system and sought to bring it to the attention of authorities.
A series of emails, obtained by CNN, including an exchange between Georgia Democratic party operatives, refer to findings by an unaffiliated voter, Richard Wright, who said he had discovered potential vulnerabilities in the state’s voter information page and its online registration system. The Secretary of State received the chain of emails from a representative of a cybersecurity expert who the Georgia Democratic Party asked to evaluate the potential vulnerabilities.
“If Richard Wright had never contacted the Democratic Party on Saturday morning,” his lawyer, David Cross, told CNN, “no one would be talking about the Democratic Party. It’s only because Wright alerted them that Kemp draws it back to them.”
But it had an immediate impact. Before most voters had gotten out of bed, word of a newly launched probe into election security, already a pressure point for many Americans, had spread across the state and country.
That meant added work for Abrams, who kept up her planned bus tour schedule while also calling in to radio stations and appearing on national television – for a second day running – to both push back against Kemp’s claims and cast them as new evidence against his candidacy.
“Even if he weren’t a candidate in this election, what he is doing is proving to voters that he cannot be trusted to do his job,” said Abigail Collazo, Abrams’ director of strategic communication on Monday. “So when you add on the layer of him also being a candidate, it becomes more clear than ever that voters cannot trust Brian Kemp. And that is a message that we have been continually sharing with voters since Day One.”
Shortly after the secretary of state’s office went public, Abrams told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union” she was unaware of any probe and said Kemp was simply “desperate to turn the conversation away from his failures.”
As Abrams and Georgia Democrats were sorting out what exactly they had been accused of, Kemp’s campaign issued a statement on the matter, further politicizing the episode. “Thanks to the systems and protocols established by Secretary of State Brian Kemp,” Kemp campaign spokesman said, “no personal information was breached.”
It was an audacious one-two, with Kemp’s office effectively setting the predicate and his campaign following up with more direct, but legally immaterial, suggestions of criminal behavior.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation added a statement Monday that its Georgia Cyber Crime Center had opened a criminal investigation at the request of Kemp’s office.
“It’s wrong to call it an investigation,” Abrams had told CNN’s John Berman on “New Day” hours before. “It’s a witch hunt that was created by someone who is abusing his power.”
As Kemp defended the steps taken by office and after it had assured voters that there were no breaches in the system, a ProPublica report alleged that state officials were tinkering – as late as Sunday night – with code on the website in question.
In a statement to CNN, Candice Broce, a spokeswoman for the secretary of state’s office, denied the report.
“There is no such vulnerability in the system as alleged by the ProPublica article,” Broce said. “We immediately reviewed claims of such vulnerabilities once we received them, and our cyber security team – which includes top-notch, private sector cyber security vendors – could not substantiate any of them.”
CNN’s Curt Devine contributed to this report.