Georgia’s new voting machines by Dominion Voting Systems were demonstrated at the Secretary of State’s Office on Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2019. Voters will make their choices on touchscreens, which are connected to computers that will print out paper ballots for tabulation. Photo credit: Georgia Secretary of State

Opinion: Continuing spotlight on Ga. voting system

A federal judge’s order points out flaws in Georgia’s old voting apparatus, and raises concerns about future election risks. Georgians deserve a secure system that lives up to democracy’s tasks.

Since we last wrote August 11 about the ongoing saga of replacing Georgia’s antiquated, flawed voting machines, a federal judge has issued a voluminous order confirming that citizens were not in error to have strong concerns about this state’s machinery for conducting elections.

U.S. District Court Judge Amy Totenberg’s 153-page order reiterated the importance of all the ongoing arguments over Georgia’s troublesome voting machines and related systems. Quoting another court ruling, the Judge noted that “Confidence in the integrity of our electoral processes is essential to the functioning of our participatory democracy.”

That is the crux of the matter, we believe, and it is why we once again encourage and urge Georgia to set in place a new system of voting that is fully adequate to the task of fulfilling its key role in American representative democracy. Georgians deserve, and should demand, no less than that. Citizen trust in the system is too vital for lesser efforts to prevail.

In assessing legal evidence and testimony over time, Judge Totenberg’s order was quite critical of the state’s existing voting machinery and the systems used to manage it. As a result, the order prohibits use of the so-called DRE system after this November’s local elections. Judge Totenberg wrote that, “Continued use of the GEMS/DRE system past this 2019 cycle of elections is indefensible given the operational and constitutional issues at stake.”

Georgia recently signed a nearly $107 million contract for new voting machines. Unlike the old, inadequate, non-auditable system, the new devices will produce a paper ballot that shows voter choices. The paper readouts will also have a barcode read by scanners to count votes.

Georgia is moving to roll out these new touchscreen voting machines in time for the March 2020 Presidential primary here. Judge Totenberg’s order made clear her doubts about whether Georgia can successfully complete this project before then. As a result, the court ordered the state to develop a Plan B that, if needed, would use scanners provided by new vendor Dominion Voting or others to count hand-marked paper ballots. We should not have to go there.

It’s clear that Georgia has much to accomplish before the 2020 presidential primary. The court’s order notes, and we agree, that the state took a significant step forward in allocating funding for a new voting system. The contract to purchase Dominion’s Ballot Marking Devices (BMD’s) is the result of that legislation and appropriation.

We urge the Secretary of State’s office to move as quickly and effectively as possible to make all necessary improvements to the state’s election apparatus between now and next March. It should be sobering to current state officials that a federal court’s order reads that, “The defendants have previously minimized, erased, or dodged the issues underlying this case. Thus, the Court has made sure that the past is recounted frankly in this Order, to ensure transparency for the future.”

Georgia can, and must, do better going forward. That is the charge now before current Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, elected in 2018. Even if his office proves up to the task and implements the chosen new system with absolute fidelity and no missteps, not everyone will be satisfied, we admit.

There are computer science, statistical auditing, and elections experts and, yes, activists who believe nothing less than a hand-marked paper ballot is acceptable. For them, the barcode to be used by Georgia’s new system to scan ballots is a non-starter because the code is not decipherable by human eyes. They also are concerned about the ongoing risk of hostile hacking of electronic election systems.

The risk of hacking may be the only point on which the varying factions agree to some extent. That bit of common ground should be seen as indicating the seriousness of the election security task before Georgia officials. It should not be ignored or underestimated.

We make that point even while acknowledging that old-school election interference was not uncommon against a paper balloting system. As we wrote in an August 11 editorial: “Even the all-paper system urged by some voting rights advocates was vulnerable to malicious interference or errors of interpretation, history shows. Old-timers have spoken of full paper-ballot boxes ending up at the bottom of lakes.

“And memories are still fresh of the bitter arguments over ‘hanging chad’ on paper ballots in the 2000 election.”

Also on today’s page, we have an opinion by a computer science and information security expert who argues for paper ballots. And we have also gathered previous points made by Secretary of State Raffensperger or his designee on this issue.

All of this ongoing debate and action will be worth if it if Georgia ends up with a voting system that is secure and accurate – and fully tested and operational by next March.

Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board.

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