On Saturday, just a few days before Tuesday’s highly anticipated special election to fill an open congressional seat, election equipment used to check in voters at the polls was stolen in Cobb County, Georgia.
“On the evening of April 15th, voting equipment used for voter check-in for one Cobb County precinct for the April 18 Special Election was stolen from a poll manager’s vehicle,” the Cobb County Board of Elections said in a statement. “The Cobb County Board of Elections is working with the Georgia Secretary of State’s office to address this serious matter. Cobb County Police is investigating the theft.”
Although the units were stolen on Saturday, the Georgia secretary of state’s office says the Cobb County Board of Elections did not notify it until two days later. The secretary of state’s office has reconfigured the coding to make the stolen units unusable, according to spokeswoman Candice Boce.
“It is unacceptable that the Cobb County Elections Office waited two days to notify my office of this theft,” Secretary of State Brian Kemp said in a statement. “We have opened an investigation, and we are taking steps to ensure that it has no effect on the election. I am confident that the results will not be compromised.”
Pam Burel, the administrative supervisor at the Cobb County Board of Elections, told TPM that the board was unable to comment further while there is an open investigation.
The units stolen were not voting machines, so they could not be used to fraudulently vote, Cobb County Elections Director Janine Eveler told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The equipment did contain the voter file with Georgia voters’ personal information like driver’s license numbers and addresses, but not social security numbers, Eveler told the Journal-Constitution. But she added that “it does require some knowledge or expertise to use machine to retrieve the information.”
Eveler told told Atlanta television station WSBTV that they will replace the stolen equipment.
Though local officials say the machines stolen cannot be used to vote, some residents may link the incident to concerns about voter fraud, which is extremely rare in the U.S.
“It’s very shocking, especially with the climate we have of voter fraud out there,” an unnamed voter told WSBTV of the theft.
The incident took place just a few days before the high-stakes special election to fill a House seat vacated by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. Democrat Jon Ossoff has been leading the 18-candidate field in the polls, and Democrats are hopeful that they can turn the historically Republican district blue.
Tammy Patrick, a fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center who served on the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, told TPM that the theft should not have much of an impact on Tuesday’s election. She said that electronic poll books are more secure than paper books and that voter information is often available to the public in some form, though driver’s license numbers are likely not public information.
She said that someone could not use the electronic poll books to alter voter information or to fraudulently cast a vote. And as long as there is a back-up electronic or paper voter file, the theft would not impact voters’ ability to cast a ballot at the polling place.
Patrick did note that the theft could prompt an “issue of the perception and the confidence in the process from the voter’s perspective.” But she did not see an effect beyond that.
“It sounds far worse than it is,” she told TPM. “I don’t see how this is going to be impactful in the election itself unless people say, ‘Oh look, it’s already compromised, I’m just not going to go vote.’ Then that would obviously have an impact.”
This post has been updated.