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Georgia county under scrutiny after claim of post-election breach

Effort by county official to investigate 2020 contest underscores growing threat to election security, experts say

An election official counts absentee ballots in Atlanta on Nov. 4, 2020. (Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg News)
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A former elections supervisor in rural Coffee County, Ga., has told The Washington Post that she opened her offices to a businessman active in the election-denier movement to help investigate results she did not trust in the weeks after President Donald Trump’s 2020 defeat.

Trump had carried the conservative county by 40 points, but elections supervisor Misty Hampton said she remained suspicious of Joe Biden’s win in Georgia. Hampton made a video that went viral soon after the election, claiming to show that Dominion Voting System machines, the ones used in her county, could be manipulated. She said in interviews that she hoped the Georgia businessman who visited later, Scott Hall, and others who accompanied him could help identify vulnerabilities and prove “that this election was not done true and correct.”

Hampton said she could not remember when the visit occurred or what Hall and the others did when they were there. She said they did not enter a room that housed the county’s touch-screen voting machines, but she said she did not know whether they entered the room housing the election management system server, the central computer used to tally election results.

“I’m not a babysitter,” she told The Post.

Hall, who owns a bail bond business, did not respond to requests for comment.

Voting experts said that, whether they accessed sensitive areas or not, Hampton’s actions underscore a growing risk to election security.

In the year and a half since the 2020 election, there has been a steady drumbeat of revelations about alleged security breaches in local elections offices — and a growing concern among experts that officials who are sympathetic to claims of vote-rigging might be persuaded to undermine election security in the name of protecting it.

“Insider threat, while always part of the threat matrix, is now a reality in elections,” said Matt Masterson, who previously served as a senior U.S. cybersecurity official tracking 2020 election integrity for the Department of Homeland Security.

Suspected or attempted breaches have spurred law enforcement investigations in Colorado, Michigan and Ohio. One such case has already led to criminal charges. Tina Peters, an elections official in Mesa County, Colo., was indicted in March on charges stemming from her alleged efforts to secretly copy a Dominion Voting Systems server last year.

Details continue to emerge from other places where outsiders may have sought access to voting machines. In Michigan, state police are investigating an alleged breach of voting equipment after the 2020 election in Roscommon County. A local NBC television affiliate in western Michigan reported last week that police had raided a township office in a different county as part of that investigation.

Meanwhile, some prominent election deniers have sought help from officials with access to protected voting systems, and others — including Peters in Colorado — are running to oversee elections as secretaries of state.

Voting systems are considered by the federal government to be “critical infrastructure,” vital to national security, and access to their software and other components is tightly regulated. In several instances since 2020, machines have been taken out of service after their chain of custody was interrupted.

Hampton told The Post she was unaware of guidance the Georgia secretary of state’s office had sent to county election administrators saying that voting equipment and software must not be released to the public absent a court order. And she questioned why access should be so restricted.

“I don’t see why anything that is dealing with elections is not open to the public,” Hampton said. “Why would you want to hide anything?”

In the days after Biden’s victory, officials in Coffee County — about 200 miles southeast of Atlanta — voiced suspicions of fraud, elections board meeting minutes show. Hampton told them that rogue election officials could have flipped votes in other jurisdictions and that ballots could have been scanned and counted multiple times, according to the minutes.

Questions about Hampton’s interactions with Hall surfaced only in recent months, in a long-running federal lawsuit filed by the Coalition for Good Governance and others against the Georgia secretary of state’s office. The plaintiffs argue that the state’s election system is so insecure that it violates the rights of voters. In a portion of a recorded phone call, a man identified in court papers as Hall claimed to have arranged for a plane to take people to Coffee County to copy data on voting equipment.

Plaintiffs played the nearly three-minute recording during depositions in February and March of two high-ranking deputies to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R). They later filed the audio in court.

Listen to the recorded call


Raffensperger’s office declined to comment for this report, citing the pending litigation and an ongoing investigation of the Coffee County matter. Attorneys for Raffensperger told the court last month that the secretary of state’s office launched the investigation as soon as it became aware of the recorded phone call. They said state officials have not found evidence of a security breach.

Hampton told The Post last week that no investigators have contacted her about Hall’s claims.

Marilyn Marks, executive director of the Coalition for Good Governance, told The Post that the recording captures part of a March 2021 telephone conversation she had with Hall. She said that she had met Hall once in passing before he called her and that she started recording the call after he said he had obtained confidential legal files related to her litigation.

In the recording, the man identified as Hall told Marks that he arranged for a plane to ferry people to Coffee County and accompanied them as they “went in there and imaged every hard drive of every piece of equipment” and scanned ballots. “We basically had the entire elections committee there,” he added. “And they said: ‘We give you permission. Go for it.’”

He said on the call that he had not received a report from the team about its findings.

Ernestine Thomas-Clark, who was chair of the five-member county elections board and its lone Democrat around the time of the 2020 election, said that she was unaware of any effort to copy data from the machines and that no one had asked her permission to do so. “I don’t know anything about it,” she told The Post.

Three other members of the board at the time did not respond to requests for comment.

Hampton, who was hired by the board, said she was accompanied during Hall’s visit by the fifth member, Eric Chaney. Hampton, then known as Misty Martin, said she sat with Hall and Chaney in a conference room after the outside team arrived to investigate.

She gave The Post what she said were text messages with Chaney in which she mentioned Hall. At 4:26 p.m. on Jan. 6, 2021, as rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol, she texted Chaney that Hall was discussing the possibility of scanning “our ballots from the general election like we talked about the other day,” according to the text messages.

The next day, Chaney asked her to switch to Signal, the encrypted messaging app, according to the messages.

In an email county lawyers forwarded to The Post, Chaney wrote that he does not know Hall and was not present when anyone “illegally accessed the server or the room in which it is contained.” Responding later to inquiries about the text messages, he wrote, “I have no personal recollection of what you’re asking.”

Coffee County Administrator Wesley Vickers declined to comment.

Patrick Byrne, the former Overstock chief executive who has played a central role in the election-denier movement and has written about his own team’s efforts to find irregularities in Georgia and elsewhere, described Hall as a “node in the network” of people investigating the election during that time.

Byrne said Hall told him that he and others had made a trip to Coffee County to try to get access to election equipment. Byrne said Hall told him he did not know whether they succeeded in obtaining sensitive data, such as a copy of the hard drive of the server.

In the audio recording, Hall described the people responsible for copying hard drives in Coffee County as “the same people that went up to Michigan and did all that forensic stuff on the computers.”

In December 2020, plaintiffs in a lawsuit in Antrim County, Mich., were permitted by a state judge to copy Dominion voting equipment. Participants in that effort — including employees of the Atlanta-based data security firm Sullivan Strickler and former pro surfer Conan Hayes, who was then working with Byrne — either declined to comment or did not respond to a request for comment.

Hampton said she resigned from her elections job under pressure in February 2021. Thomas-Clark, the elections board chair, said Hampton was accused of falsifying time sheets. Hampton said she followed election board guidance in her handling of time sheets. She said she believed she was pushed out because she had made the video criticizing Dominion machines.

Hampton’s successor, James Barnes, emailed Raffensperger’s office on May 7, 2021, to say he had found a business card from Doug Logan of Cyber Ninjas at the base of Hampton’s former computer. The Florida-based firm by then had been selected to conduct a Republican-commissioned ballot review in Maricopa County, Ariz.

“I think it might be prudent to see if there has been any contact between the person on the card and anyone in your office and/or if they have had access to any of your equipment,” Chris Harvey, who was then the state director of elections, replied to Barnes several days later in an email obtained through a public records request.

Emails show that Harvey contacted the chief of the secretary of state’s investigations division, who directed one of her investigators, Pamela Jones, to ask Coffee County officials whether Cyber Ninjas had accessed county voting equipment.

Harvey, who left the secretary of state’s office three weeks later, said in an interview that he did not recall details of the events in question. Barnes, who is no longer employed by Coffee County, could not be reached. Jones did not respond to a request for comment.

Hampton told The Post she believed that Logan had stopped by her office at some point. She said she could not recall the circumstances of his visit.

Logan said in a podcast interview last year that after the 2020 election, he spent time in Georgia trying to get access to Dominion machines to investigate the election results. He indicated that he was not successful.

His spokesman did not respond to a request for comment about his interactions with Hampton.

On June 8, 2021, about a month after Barnes sent the email regarding Logan’s business card, state officials replaced the server in Coffee County with a new server, according to computer records generated when the new server was installed. In response to a request from the federal judge for any documentation detailing the removal of the server, Raffensperger’s office this week filed only those records in court.

Attorneys for Raffensperger told the judge last month that the secretary of state’s office took possession of the old server because a former elections official, whom they did not name, changed a password, making it impossible for others to get into the machine. Hampton told The Post she did not change any password.

In a December hearing, long before the recorded phone call surfaced, investigators for the secretary of state’s office told the State Elections Board that they had found security problems in Hampton’s office. They flagged the practice of leaving doors unlocked in the area that housed election equipment as a risk, according to a transcript of the hearing.

Hampton acknowledged to investigators — and to The Post — that the door was often unlocked. Coffee County attorneys in the hearing disputed that leaving it unlocked violated security regulations.

The investigators also flagged what they called the “very misleading” video that Hampton made — along with Chaney, according to investigators — about Dominion machines. In the video, the password for the Coffee server was visible, written on a note attached to the computer monitor, a disclosure that was another security risk, investigators told the state board. Chaney did not respond to messages seeking comment about his role in creating the video.

The state board referred the findings to Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr (R) for potential civil penalties. A spokeswoman for Carr told The Post this week that the review remains “active and ongoing.”

Jacqueline Alemany and Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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