LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
And now onto election security, which is a huge campaign issue ahead of this year's midterms. In Georgia, the Republican candidate for governor is also secretary of state. The top election official, Brian Kemp, insists Georgia's elections are secure. But as Johnny Kauffman of member station WABE reports, Democrats want immediate changes.
CAROLINE STOVER: Thank you. And again, we're here at Manuel's Tavern in Atlanta. And we do have people from all over Georgia tuning in. So welcome, everyone.
JOHNNY KAUFFMAN, BYLINE: Caroline Stover, a Democratic activist, speaks to about 100 people in the back room of a wood-paneled bar as they sip beers and eat tater tots. They came to learn about Georgia's election system. And what they hear from Stover and others is that the system is not secure.
STOVER: Here we are three months before an important election, living with the reality that, once again, Georgia voters might be going to the polls and not know if your vote actually counts.
KAUFFMAN: One big topic at Manuel's Tavern is paper ballots. A handful of voters filed an ongoing federal lawsuit pushing the state to use them in the midterms. Democrats like Stover want Republican secretary of state and candidate for governor Brian Kemp to order a switch to paper ballots himself.
STOVER: Enough is enough. And we simply can't wait any longer for, for example, our secretary of state.
KAUFFMAN: Georgia is one of 14 states that uses electronic voting machines without a paper trail or paper ballots. Cybersecurity experts agree this leaves elections more vulnerable. Worst-case scenario - hackers manipulate Georgia's vote totals. And there's no paper backup to do a manual recount. That could mean chaos. Kemp isn't opposed to paper ballots. But he says a switch to them shouldn't happen before the 2018 election.
BRIAN KEMP: And that would be an absolute disaster - changing from the current system that we have now to paper ballots.
KAUFFMAN: Kemp has faced questions about the security of Georgia's elections. Ahead of the 2016 contest, an outside researcher found voter information and passwords unsecured on a state contractor's website. After Russian hacking attempts were revealed, Kemp turned down assistance from the Department of Homeland Security. A few months later, he accused DHS itself of hacking the state's network. That proved to be false. Kemp insists Georgia's elections are secure.
KEMP: I think, if anything, my record is a strength for me. I mean, I'm glad to talk about that record all day long.
KAUFFMAN: Kemp notes added firewalls and regular work with cybersecurity vendors. Before he won the Republican nomination, some in Kemp's party questioned his record. They're more quiet now. Kemp's opponent, Democrat Stacey Abrams, hasn't criticized him much. But other Democrats have.
ELIZABETH STARLING: I think he's not only failing in his duty, but he shouldn't have it. He should not have that responsibility anymore.
KAUFFMAN: Back at the bar, Democrat Elizabeth Starling says Kemp has no business overseeing any election as secretary of state when he's on the ballot himself.
STARLING: I'm infuriated.
KAUFFMAN: The Georgia Democratic Party this week called for Kemp to resign. While some previous secretaries of state running for higher office here have stepped down, Kemp says he has no plans to. Marian Schneider says election administration in the U.S. is often run by partisans. But today, she worries it will hurt the country. Schneider is president of Verified Voting, a nonprofit that advocates for paper ballots.
MARIAN SCHNEIDER: This issue of election administration and election security is not a political issue. It's a national security issue. These are national security concerns.
KAUFFMAN: Schneider says everyone should still vote. As candidates in Georgia fight to win those votes, they'll also be arguing about whether the technology used to cast and count them can be trusted. For NPR News, I'm Johnny Kauffman in Atlanta.
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