Dear shorter people with long fingernails: Beware casting wrong ballot

Empty voting machines line the wall inside the Fulton County Government Center in Atlanta on Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2013.

Empty voting machines line the wall inside the Fulton County Government Center in Atlanta on Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2013.

Voter suppression tactics, social media campaigns attempting to sway public opinion, Russian forces infiltrating American voting machines.

These are all concerns that have drawn headlines during this much-watched midterm election season. But there might be another threat to a well-oiled democracy in metro Atlanta and beyond.

Shorter people and those with longer fingernails have reported vote-switching — they intended to select one candidate on a touchscreen voting machine, but their vote is cast for another candidate.

Nail fail

In Georgia, this nail mishap is manifesting itself during the midterm election as voters trying to select Democrat Stacey Abrams are instead marking Republican Brian Kemp as their choice for governor, said Janine Eveler, head of elections in Cobb County.

READ | Nearly half of Georgia voters concerned about fraud or voting access

That’s because Kemp is listed above Abrams on the ballot because his party is the party in power in the Governor’s mansion. So when some voters try to select Abrams, their fingernail can accidentally hits the Kemp box.

Kemp is the secretary of state, meaning he is in charge of the state's elections systems.

“Because the candidate selected in error is the party in power, it looks suspicious to voters,” Eveler said. “There aren’t a lot of these, but those that come out are often picked up by the media and suspicions grow.”

She said this often comes to light during races in which candidates on the ballot are separated by party, like the governor’s race.

“Because fingernails for women often extend beyond their finger pad, we’ve found that the reports are overwhelmingly made by female voters,” Eveler said.

Georgia's NAACP chapter announced last week that it had filed complaints about these issues occurring throughout the state.

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Joe Sorenson, spokesman for Gwinnett County, said they have gotten three reports of this happening to voters with longer fingernails.

“This is extraordinarily long fingernails,” he said. “ ... Typically, when we have a lot of voters, we’ll have one or two of these.”

And this year certainly counts: early voting totals across Georgia are breaking records.

Calibration consternation

Another possible reason for accidental vote-switching can be traced to the way voting machines are calibrated, election officials said.

Many machines are calibrated by taller, male poll workers. That means shorter voters and those using machines from non-standard angles — like elderly voters sitting down casting ballots at tabletop machines — have troubles with what also looks like vote-switching.

If a taller person calibrates the machine, that can change how a selection of the touchscreen is registered.

It seems that’s just what happened to Joan Hagle.

The 69-year-old Cobb resident voted Thursday morning at a senior center in Acworth and said her vote for Abrams was marked as for Kemp the four or fives times she tried.

Eveler, Cobb’s elections manager, said their technicians who calibrate the touchscreens are “mostly male and taller than many female voters.”

“They’re trying to use this electronic for the goodness and swiftness of its possibilities, but it’s not perfected right. And if you got to go back to the old method to do it right, so be it,” Hagle said.

This hasn’t been an issue this election season in Gwinnett. “Our staff is a really good mix of men, women, short, tall,” Sorenson said.

Erica Hamilton, head of elections in DeKalb County, said it is mostly men who calibrate their machines, and they use a stylus. She said they haven’t had any fingernail issues reported this midterm election.

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A stylus was the only way Iris McIlvaine said she was able to vote at the Johns Creek Environmental Campus in Alpharetta.

The 68-year-old Roswell woman said she used her finger to try to vote for Abrams, instead her machine was selecting for Kemp. Then she used the stylus she had for her phone on the touchscreen.

She and her husband, 72-year-old Thomas Yorke, both had trouble voting. He said he had to press five or six times when trying to mark a box on each page in the same spot on the right side of each page.

Both felt their vote was accurately counted, but it left them unnerved.

“If I’m going to make a good faith effort to get out there and vote, I want my vote to count,” she said.

McIlvaine reported her issue to the Justice Department.

“I wasn’t wanting to call the guy who is running,” she said, referring to Kemp.

READYour guide to Georgia voting integrity and access

Mac Beeson from Election Systems & Software demonstrates the scanner portion of his company’s voting system during a meeting  of the state’s Secure, Accessible & Fair Elections Commission, which is which is evaluating whether to switch from electronic voting machines to ones that offer paper ballots for verification and auditing. (BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM)

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Of course, none of this is a problem if voters are paying attention and reviewing their choices, but Hagle in Cobb was worried that other people may be rushing through and not see the error.

“It alarmed me that it was going to sway voting,” she said.

Eveler said the poll manager who helped Hagle reported the woman was using a voting machine that is on a table for voters who are disabled or elderly.

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“He indicated that she did have longer fingernails and with the seated angle she kept getting an error in the selection,” Eveler said.

She was moved to another machine and asked to use her knuckles to make her selection, and she was eventually able to vote, Eveler said. The first unit was tested and cleared before being put back into service.

Eveler said she encourages people to review the summary of their selections before submitting their ballot. If a voter thinks there has been a problem, alert the poll manager.

If an issue arises, voters can always call the Georgia elections fraud hotline at 877-725-9797 or the Justice Department's line at 800-253-3931.

“If they wait until they get home and then report it, we usually can’t do anything,” Eveler said.

The AJC is participating in Electionland, a ProPublica project that is covering access to the ballot and problems that prevent people from exercising their right to vote during the 2018 election.

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In 1861, Georgia lawmakers called on the governor to supply a flag with the state coat of arms to every Georgia military unit serving outside the state.

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