Election watchdog groups sue Indiana secretary of state to get records on voting security

A national group of cybersecurity experts is suing Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson, saying she has refused to turn over emails and other communications about the reliability and security of voting machines, despite numerous requests.

The National Election Defense Coalition said on Thursday morning that it filed a suit in Marion County court alleging that Lawson unlawfully denied access to public records regarding election security.

Lawson was recently president of the National Association of Secretaries of State, and, in that position, issued statements about the security and trustworthiness of U.S. voting systems. The cybersecurity group said some of Lawson’s statements were “inaccurate and potentially detrimental” to election security efforts.

As an example, it pointed to Lawson’s testimony in June 2017 to the U.S. Senate Select Committee’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, in which she said it was “very important to underscore that voting machines are not connected to the Internet or networked in any way.”

The coalition disputed that statement, saying many voting machines certified for use in Florida, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin contained wireless modems that connect to the Internet and expose voting machines to online attacks. It added that some voting systems were found to be configured with remote-access software.

“There has been worryingly little meaningful reform to secure our election systems in the wake of the revelations that foreign agents are trying to hack our elections,” Susan Greenhalgh, policy director for the National Election Defense Coalition, said in a written statement.

She added: “We need to know why NASS and Secretary Lawson have repeated misinformation about voting system security that seems to originate from the voting systems vendors.”

In an effort to find out where Lawson was getting her information, the coalition submitted a request under Indiana’s open-records law in September 2018, seeking copies of communications between Lawson’s office and the National Association of Secretaries of State for the previous 16 months, the complaint said. It later amended the request to cover only specific email domains and communications containing specific election-security-related keywords.

The coalition includes computer science professors, intelligence analysts and experts in elections security.

Lawson’s office declined to comment, saying it does not discuss pending litigation. In a January Politico story on the records dispute, Lawson's office said that the communications at issue are exempt from disclosure because NASS is a private organization, not a public agency, and thus not covered by public-records laws. It also argued that some of the material is either copyrighted or classified.

The cybersecurity group said the reply it received from NASS also asserted that the signature block for all of its staff members (“the information contained in this communication from the sender is confidential”) protected the emails from public disclosure.

Lawson’s office also said NASS was not a public agency and was not covered by public-records laws.

The coalition responded that NASS’ status was “wholly and completely irrelevant,” because the open-records request was directed to the secretary of state’s office, which is a public agency.

“After nine months of fruitless exchanges and Secretary Lawson’s repeatedly evolving explanations for denial and delay, NEDC still hasn’t received the vast majority of public records that it requested from the Secretary,” said Ron Fein, legal director of Free Speech for People, a Newton, Massachusetts-based not-for-profit that helped file the lawsuit.

Indianapolis attorney William R. Groth of Fillenwarth Dennerline Groth & Towe LLP filed the suit in Marion County on behalf of the National Election Defense Coalition.

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