Georgia lawmakers are preparing to ditch the state’s old and vulnerable electronic voting machines, but they haven’t fully committed to paper ballots that can’t be hacked.
A bill to to replace all of Georgia’s 27,000 voting machines in time for the 2020 presidential election cleared the state Senate last week and is now pending in the House.
Organizations seeking secure elections say they’re worried that Georgia could end up with an untrustworthy and expensive election system.
The legislation has raised some concerns, including the lack of a requirement that manual recounts be conducted with paper ballots and the possibility that bar codes could be printed on the ballots.
“Electronics make life easier, but they also can be manipulated,” said Sara Henderson, the executive director of Common Cause Georgia, a government accountability group. “We’re trying to get changes into the bill that will make paper the official ballot of record.
“If we don’t have that language in there, we’ll have the same situation as we have now,” she said.
Georgia’s current voting machines rely on memory cards that don’t leave a paper trail, meaning there’s no way to verify the accuracy of election results.
About 70 percent of the nation uses paper ballots. Only Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, New Jersey and South Carolina rely entirely on direct-recording electronic voting machines without a paper backup, according to Verified Voting, an election integrity organization.
Georgia needs to change its voting system after tech experts exposed security vulnerabilities in such machines during the DefCon computer hacking conference in July in Las Vegas, said state Sen. Bruce Thompson, the sponsor of the election legislation, Senate Bill 403.
There’s no evidence hackers have penetrated voting machines in Georgia.
“The citizens of Georgia right now are very concerned. Their confidence in elections is not very high,” said Thompson, R-White. “It’s time for us to implement a system that will provide a paper ballot and audits so we can do spot checks.”
Russian attempts to interfere in the 2016 presidential campaign also heightened the need to protect the sanctity of elections. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security said in August 2016 that Russian hackers targeted election systems in 21 states. Georgia wasn’t one of those states.
Georgians strongly support replacing the state’s current voting machines, according to a poll released Tuesday by a group called Secure Vote Georgia. The group is buying billboard ads and sending mailers in favor of a voting system that leaves a paper trail.
It’s unclear what kind of voting system the state would end up with.
Many voters across the country use paper-and-pencil to bubble in their selections by hand, and those paper ballots are then fed into a machine that counts their votes. The ballots are saved in a secure box for recounts and audits.
A voting system tested in Conyers in November uses a different method: touch-screen machines that print ballots to reflect voters’ choices. Then voters can slide them into a vote scanning machine. The test run was paid for by Georgia’s current voting system vendor, Election Systems & Software, which provided its ExpressVote touch screens and DS200 tabulation machines.
Under the legislation, either paper-and-pencil or machine-generated ballots could be used for the state’s next voting system. Georgians have been voting on electronic machines since 2002.
The bill calls for election companies to submit bids starting in January, and for Georgia’s incoming secretary of state to pick an election system. Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp leaves that office at the end of this year.
Then the Georgia General Assembly would have to decide whether to fund it during the 2019 legislative session.
Old-fashioned paper ballots could cost $35 million or more, while a touch screen-and-paper voting system could run well over $100 million. It’s unclear whether legislative leaders are committed to paying for a new voting system next year.
The bill would allow election officials to decide whether to conduct manual recounts, even in very close elections. Without a recount by hand, recounts would use the same vote-counting machines that produced the initial result.
“By permitting the recounts to be done by the machine, you get no benefit of putting it on paper,” said Susan Greenhalgh of the National Election Defense Coalition, which advocates for secure and accurate elections. “The whole point of getting the paper ballot is to have an independent record of voter intent that’s not in digital form, so it can be counted to ensure the tally is correct and that it wasn’t affected by any software bug, error or cyber event.”
She said hand-filled paper ballots — without touch screens, bar codes, printers or other machinery — would be the safest option.
The problem with using bar codes on ballots is that voters can’t tell whether those codes match their selections, and the bar codes would make it too easy for election officials to simply re-scan ballots instead of performing a true hand recount, she said.
Senators amended the voting legislation last month to state that voters’ selections “may” be detectable by tabulation machines, but the bill doesn’t require machines to scan their choices rather than bar codes.
The elections director from Augusta and Richmond County, Lynn Bailey, told senators during a hearing last month that she prefers a touch screen system.
“I personally am concerned about going to a system that’s all paper at the polling place,” she said. “There are problems with it, the least of which is that people tend to hit the top offices, and the down-ballot offices won’t even get looked at.”
Garland Favorito, who founded a group called Voter GA to seek secure elections, prefers paper ballots but said the voting legislation needs more work before it becomes law.
“We are trying to protect Georgia voters against the state purchasing unverifiable devices again,” Favorito said.
The story so far
Previously: Georgia lawmakers are working on a bill to replace the state’s voting system before the 2020 presidential election.
The latest: The state Senate voted to approve legislation that would allow Georgia’s next secretary of state to pick a voting system.
What’s next: The House will revise and likely vote on an elections bill before the end of this year’s legislative session on March 29.
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