Georgia Democrats evade an information blockade on voting machines

Hart InterCivic voting machines on display at the state Capitol in January. Bob Andres,

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

Hart InterCivic voting machines on display at the state Capitol in January. Bob Andres,

November is making itself felt in the state Capitol.

A Republican senator, the chairman of the committee in charge of the topic, openly speaks of drawing down more federal Medicaid dollars to cover those without health insurance. As an epithet, “Obamacare” was somehow lost in the dust of 2018.

Eight GOP senators have signed onto a measure calling for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, a radioactive topic in Republican circles for decades. Three of the signatures belong to male senators in north metro Atlanta territory that has turned dicey for the GOP.

But to get the best feel for the change in the state’s political climate, for evidence that – despite the usual winning season — Republicans in Georgia may be approaching a plateau, you had to be in the legislative office building adjacent to the Capitol on Wednesday afternoon.

Room 415 is where the House Democratic Caucus held a hearing. It is difficult to convey the intensity with which such events have been ignored in the past. Anything that attracted two TV tripods and an intern scribbling in a notebook was considered a rabid success by the minority party.

The Wednesday event was outside GOP purview, and thus was not livestreamed on the internet. Which is just as well, because it might have attracted a fire marshal’s attention, so packed and stifling was the room.

The topic was a minority report to answer a Republican plan – produced by a ballot security commission established by Brian Kemp as secretary of state – to spend $150 million on hardware and training for new voting machines.

Significantly, every major vendor interested in bidding on the contract was in Room 415, most with their machines. In a state Capitol still controlled from head to toe by Republicans, their very presence at a rump gathering of Democrats was significant.

Earlier this month, the Secure, Accessible & Fair Elections (SAFE) Commission voted 13-3 to recommend a new voting system with touch screens and printers, called ballot-marking devices, that would cost taxpayers well over $100 million.

The dissenters were the two Democrats on the panel, state Rep. James Beverly of Macon and state Sen. Lester Jackson of Savannah, as well as its only cybersecurity expert, Georgia Tech professor Wenke Lee. All three preferred hand-marked paper ballots as more secure.

Beverly and Jackson, but not Lee, put their names to the minority report, which criticized the SAFE Commission's recommendation as overly influenced by those with a financial stake in the outcome. The Democrat-generated paper came one day after the Journal-Constitution reported that Kemp, now governor, had placed on his staff a former lobbyist for a voting machine manufacturer, Election Systems & Software.

“This vendor-led, cart-before-the-horse approach allowed the commission to come to a premature conclusion without providing the Legislature with either a strong basis in facts and research or baseline standards for what Georgia is seeking in a voting system,” the minority report reads.

Whether the report becomes a formal part of the record is open to question. When the majority report was issued, a co-chair, state Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, set a three-day deadline for a minority answer. Democrats missed that deadline.

Kemp’s gubernatorial clash with Democrat Stacey Abrams last year goes far to explain the crowd that gathered in Room 415. But something else was afoot, too.

In 2005, Republicans took control of the House and completed their conquest of the state Capitol. That chamber was now in the hands of the first GOP speaker in modern Georgia history and Republican members with little experience (except for former Democrats) in running a committee meeting. Experts from the U.S. House, then under tight GOP control, were trucked in from Washington.

Georgia Republicans were lectured on the importance of keeping a firm hand on witnesses and their testimonies in committees. Control the flow of information, and you control the debate — and, in turn, the legislation, they were told time and again.

The Democratic meeting in Room 415, chaired by state Rep. Roger Bruce of Atlanta, may have been the most successful running of a GOP information blockade at the state Capitol in 14 years. Unauthorized facts abounded.

For instance, the majority report by the SAFE Commission notes that “there is no evidence that Georgia’s voting machines have ever been compromised or that they do no not accurately count votes.”

One of those testifying on Wednesday was Sarah Riggs Amico, the unsuccessful Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor.

In last year’s race for governor, 3,939,328 voters cast a ballot. But in the No. 2 race for lieutenant governor, 159,024 of those voters – about 4 percent — dropped away.

Then, in the next race down, 103,290 of those supposedly lost voters suddenly regained their interest and voted in the No. 3 contest on the ballot, for secretary of state contest.

The anomaly is a stark one recognized by Democrats and Republicans (at least privately) alike. There's never been a ballot-drop off like it in recorded Georgia electoral history.

Why it happened, or how, we don’t know. Amico’s efforts to research it have been stymied. Her requests to see internal data have been turned away. “The idea that free and fair and accurately tabulated elections are only for the winners, that is false. We need to see what happened,” she said. “I think what’s interesting, if not disturbing, is the utter lack of curiosity among your colleagues on the other side of the aisle.”

Amico said Robyn Crittenden, who temporarily replaced Kemp as secretary of state, was gracious enough to invite her to a meeting to discuss the matter. But Amico said that Crittenden was accompanied at that meeting by legal counsel, who told her that a lawsuit challenging the results of the race for lieutenant governor prohibited candid discussion of the missing 100,000 votes.

Amico was not a party to the lawsuit. She has pointedly said she is not disputing the results of the Nov. 6 contest, won by Republican Geoff Duncan. In any case, the lawsuit has now been dismissed.

And so, I wondered whether Brad Raffensperger, the Republican who won the race to replace Kemp permanently as secretary of state, might be curious about those vanished 100,000 votes.

I phoned his spokeswoman. And emailed her, too. But I didn’t hear back before deadline. This was disappointing, because Amico’s beef isn’t necessarily a partisan one.

Those voting drop-offs she cites occurred in heavily Democratic counties. So Democratic malfeasance or misfeasance is just as likely as any Republican transgression.

Some credible attention from the secretary of state might also help assuage suspicions among Democrats, fueled by a hot governor’s race, that their ballots don’t count as much as others.