While the January 6 committee has rightly focused on the criminal conspiracy to overturn the 2020 election, it is critical to remember that this threat is ongoing, and many of the people implicated continue to work to undermine future elections. One of the most troubling connections can be found in the persistent effort to illegally access election systems that could be used in 2022 and 2024. Increased security funding is needed to protect upcoming elections, especially from insider threats.
Among others, wealthy Republican businessmen like Mike Lindell, founder and CEO of MyPillow Inc., and Patrick Byrne, former CEO of Overstock.com, have been active in the effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election and are also supporting those working to gain unauthorized access to election systems. While the attempts to access these systems are most immediately a concern because false claims about them have been used to spread disinformation about the 2020 race, the efforts also pose a security risk to future elections.
Security experts have long warned that giving malicious actors direct access to election system hardware is particularly dangerous and could risk the integrity of elections. That’s why after improperly accessed voting equipment was discovered in three states — Colorado, Michigan, and Pennsylvania — officials either seized or decertified the equipment so that it could not be used in future elections. When such activity was recently discovered in a fourth state — Georgia — the secretary of state announced an investigation and said he had already replaced key election software used in the relevant county.
Who is behind the effort to gain this unauthorized access? In many cases, the very same people involved in the effort to overturn the 2020 election. Perhaps most prominently, Lindell, who has been a vociferous advocate for overturning the 2020 election, is also closely connected to many of the people who have accessed county voting systems around the country. Earlier this year, Politico reported that the January 6 committee subpoenaed his phone records. He was seen at the White House after the January 6 attack with a paper with the words “Insurrection Act” and “martial law if necessary” on it.
He is also linked with key players seeking to access voting machines in Colorado and elsewhere. Last August, Colorado state officials announced that a local county clerk allowed an unauthorized individual into a secure facility, which enabled that person to copy the hard drives of the voting equipment and share copies publicly. At the time the state announced it had discovered the intrusion, the clerk, Tina Peters, was at a “cyber symposium” hosted by Lindell. Peters has since been indicted for her actions. The state decertified all systems that were accessed and ordered the county to replace them.
Lindell has provided financial backing to groups and individuals involved in similar efforts around the country. In particular, he hired four top members of a group called U.S. Election Integrity Plan, co-founded by Shawn Smith, an election denier. The group received Lindell’s support about three months after Smith advised the Elbert County, Colorado, clerk’s effort to copy and leak his county’s voting system data.
Lindell told Reuters he has spent about $30 million and hired up to 70 people, including lawyers and “cyber people,” partly in support of Cause of America, an “election integrity” group also associated with Smith. According to Colorado Newsline, Smith himself “appears in a video from the Jan. 6 insurrection among a violent group of rioters engaged in a clash with police outside the U.S. Capitol.”
Patrick Byrne is another prominent figure caught up in the January 6 committee investigation who has also been connected to those seeking to access voting equipment. The committee obtained a December 2020 memo sent by Byrne, Lindell, and attorney Sidney Powell to a group of Republican senators that called on President Trump to use the National Security Agency and Defense Department in an attempt to show that foreign powers had intervened in the 2020 election.
Byrne has “funded independent efforts to send teams of ‘hackers and cybersleuths’ to access voting computer systems across the country,” according to the Daily Beast. He is connected to another instance of unauthorized access to election systems, this one in Georgia. The security breach apparently involves Scott Hall, a Georgia businessman and election denier whom Byrne has described as a “node in the network” of people investigating the 2020 election.
Hall’s alleged efforts became known as a result of a lawsuit filed by the Coalition for Good Governance that challenges the use of Georgia’s voting machines. In a court document related to the suit, the group’s executive director submitted evidence from a recorded phone call with a man who identifies himself as Hall and states that he accompanied a group of people who “imaged every hard drive and every piece of equipment” in the county. Misty Hampton, the county elections supervisor at the time, has acknowledged that she provided access to county election systems.
In court filings, the Georgia secretary of state’s office has stated that it is in the midst of an investigation into what occurred in Coffee County and that it replaced the county’s election management system in June 2021.
The good news in the story of election sabotage activists seeking access to election equipment is that they appear to have had very limited success in recruiting sympathetic election officials to support their cause. That could certainly change going forward as these same activists seek to fill positions that would put them in charge of running 2024 elections — or support candidates who would do so.
This increased risk of both external and insider threats is why it’s so important we take steps now to protect future elections. That includes paying for and implementing measures to protect against unauthorized access to critical election systems.