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Georgia election server wiped clean – days after lawsuit against officials

FILE - This Sept. 22, 2016, file photo shows the screen of an electronic voting machine during testing at the Kennesaw State University Center for Election Systems in Kennesaw, Ga. The Georgia attorney general’s office will no longer represent state election officials in an elections integrity lawsuit in which a crucial computer server was quietly wiped clean less than a week after the suit was filed, The Associated Press has learned, Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017. (AP Photo/Alex Sanz, File)

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Georgia’s centralized and aging election system has been the subject of several controversies – most recently in June, when a whistleblower revealed that state contractors had failed to secure an important election server against possible hacking. The resulting security hole stayed open for months. If hackers had attacked, they could potentially have affected the results of both 2016 races and a special congressional election last June that drew national attention.

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A supporter watches returns come in during the election night party of Jon Ossoff, Democratic candidate for 6th congressional district, in Atlanta, June 20, 2017. The closely contested special election, won by Republican Karen Handel, drew national attention. – AP Photo / David Goldman

The Houston bureau’s Frank Bajak, who first covered election vulnerabilities more than a decade ago, wrote up the initial news of Georgia’s election-server problem. But the initial stories couldn’t answer the larger question of whether the vulnerable server had actually been hacked,and if so,what had happened. By engaging knowledgeable people he’s known for some time – years in some cases – Bajak developed new sources and kept pressing for more information.

His efforts paid off in an unexpected direction when a source provided him with an email from a state assistant attorney general disclosing that the troubled server had been wiped clean of all data – and any forensic evidence of possible hacking. Even more interesting,this destruction of evidence happened just a few days after the filing of a lawsuit that sought to invalidate the state’s vulnerable election technology, and whose plaintiffs wanted a forensic examination of the server in question.

Bajak obtained state contractor emails that confirmed the server wipe, amid nationwide concerns about possible election tampering and the integrity of Georgia elections in particular.

Bajak also obtained state contractor emails that a voter integrity group,a plaintiff in the suit,had just obtained through a public records request. They confirmed the server wipe. That was enough to write up his finding,set against nationwide concerns about possible election tampering, Russian influence and questions about the integrity of Georgia elections in particular.

State reaction to the APNewsBreak was immediate,with both Georgia state and congressional representatives calling for investigations. Less than a week later, the state attorney general withdrew from representing the state elections chief.

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Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp speaks at an Atlanta news conference, Sept. 29, 2011. Kemp, a Republican running for governor in 2018, is the main defendant in a lawsuit over Georgia’s election integrity. – AP Photo / David Goldman

Bajak’s story was picked up in its entirety by major clients including the New York Times and the Washington Post. It was a top story Reddit,where it got 50.2K shares and was the day’s top shared AP mobile story. Outlets that matched it included Politico,The Hill,Slate and Ars Technica.

For his enterprise and dogged pursuit of the story behind the story, Bajak wins this week’s $300 Best of the States award.

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