ATLANTA (AP) - Lawyers for Georgia election officials are rejecting as frivolous allegations that their clients destroyed evidence in a case challenging the state's outdated election system.
Election integrity advocates and individual Georgia voters sued election officials, saying the voting machines the state has used since 2002 are unsecure and vulnerable to hacking. In a court filing Thursday, they said the state began destroying evidence within days of the suit's filing in 2017 and has continued to do so as the case moved forward.
Responding in a court filing Tuesday, lawyers for state election officials called those allegations "a desperate attempt to distract the Court and the public from the complete lack of evidence of an actual compromise of Georgia's election system."
The state's election system came under national scrutiny last year during the closely watched gubernatorial election in which Republican Brian Kemp, who was the state's top election official at the time, narrowly beat Democrat Stacey Abrams.
State officials on Monday announced that they have selected a new voting system and expect it to be in place in time for the presidential primary election on March 24. But the state still plans to use the outdated machines for special and municipal elections in the interim.
U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg held a two-day hearing last Thursday and Friday on requests by the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that she order the state to immediately stop using its current voting machines and switch to hand-marked paper ballots. She hadn't ruled on those requests by Wednesday.
In their brief last week, lawyers for the Coalition for Good Governance accused state officials of destroying computer servers from the Center for Election Systems at Kennesaw State University after a security hole there that exposed Georgia voters' personal data and passwords used by county election officials was discovered. State lawyers then failed to ask the FBI for a copy of a forensic image the agency made of the server before it was wiped, despite saying they would, coalition lawyers say.
Their brief also accuses state officials and their lawyers of deleting and overwriting data preserved on voting machine memories and on memory cards used to program the voting machines. They did so in spite of the plaintiffs' demands, the court's instructions and requirements of the law, the coalition lawyers wrote.
All of the evidence that the coalition's brief says was destroyed still exists and remains available for their review during the evidence gathering process, the state's lawyers wrote. They contend that the coalition was aware of this and made the allegations to get news media attention and promote its fundraising efforts.
The initial lawsuit filed in 2017 had nothing to do with elections conducted while the Kennesaw State server was in use, and the server was not identified as something that needed to be preserved until several months later when the plaintiffs announced their intent to file an amended lawsuit with additional claims, the state lawyers wrote. The server and its backup were "repurposed in the normal course of business" by Kennesaw State before election officials got requests to preserve it, they wrote
But an FBI copy of that server does exist and the state has requested a copy, and the state lawyers say they told the plaintiffs in early July that they would provide it to them.
"The State says it 'repurposed' these computers by wiping them clean, much like shredding documents 'repurposes' the documents into trash," coalition lawyer Cary Ichter said in an email, adding that state officials have repeatedly changed their story about the wiping of the server.
The coalition has "put forward no evidence that the webserver or any other information was 'crucial' to their ability to prove their case," state lawyers wrote.
Ichter argued the relevance, which he said is central to the case, is "whether the State has addressed the potentially devastating and lasting impact that leaving the server open to the internet for months has had upon election security to this day. The State, by wiping the server clean, destroyed the only evidence of what was exposed to the world."
State lawyers also argued that past election data on memory cards and the internal memory of the voting machines isn't erased by later usage because each election is stored in folders on various election systems, and the plaintiffs are aware of that. Therefore, allegations that that relevant evidence was destroyed are unfounded, they argued.