Sep 7, 2022 - News

What's going on with Coffee County?

Illustration of an open lock on a voting ballot.
Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

With a population of 43,000, Coffee County doesn't usually get much attention. In the past two years, that's changed.

What's happening: Interest in the county's handling of the 2020 election has broadened as details emerge about a team of consultants allied with former President Donald Trump. In January 2021, those consultants accessed and copied some of its election server files.

  • Some were hired by former Trump lawyer Sidney Powell.
  • Surveillance video reported by The Washington Post and the AJC yesterday brought to light even more visits to the county.
  • Accessing confidential election data is illegal.

The big picture: Some parties involved also appear to have been working to access election data in Michigan and Nevada. Others led the team running the so-called "audit" of Arizona's election results — all states that became top targets of "stolen election" theories by Trump and his allies.

Why it matters: On top of the criminal investigation of this breach, which could result in charges from the attorney general, it has become part of the Fulton County DA's investigation into efforts to overturn the 2020 election, which the DA outlined in her subpoena of Powell.

Catch up quick: The secretary of state investigated Coffee County over recount issues after the election.

  • Its top elections official, Misty Hampton, resigned in early 2021 as the investigation was forwarded to the AG. The state determined Hampton had failed to follow training and state election rules about ballot management during the 2020 recount.

Threat level: Court filings say the groups allegedly copied election management software server hard drives and copied cast ballots via a borrowed scanner.

  • Hampton told The Washington Post this year that she had left the consultants unsupervised: "I don't see why anything that is dealing with elections is not open to the public. Why would you want to hide anything?”

Yes, but: The problem with Coffee's election is not indicative of a broader problem with election security, insists Gabriel Sterling, a top executive in the secretary of state's office.

  • "The real problem that's been pointed out here was you had a bad actor."
  • "A bad actor, regardless of what system you have, a ballot marking device, hand-marked paper ballot, anything…they have access, they have passwords, and that's always going to be bad."
  • The state has a "distributed system" he said, so that even if one machine or server is accessed, others are protected.

The other side: Still, the fact of the breach shows a major vulnerability, a lawyer in the election security lawsuit, David Cross, told Axios. “The point being, to get that kind of unfettered access tells you that your security system is fundamentally nonexistent.”

What we're watching: In March 2022, the secretary of state's office reopened its investigation into Coffee County after learning of the possible breach; the Georgia Bureau of Investigation has joined that probe.

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