Opinion: A voting system we can trust

Georgia voters will soon use a new voting system that combines touchscreens and paper ballots. Their selections will be printed on a paper ballot. Voters can then review their choices and insert their ballots into a scanning machine.
Georgia voters will soon use a new voting system that combines touchscreens and paper ballots. Their selections will be printed on a paper ballot. Voters can then review their choices and insert their ballots into a scanning machine.

Georgia’s history of problems with elections demand that our new way of voting be as secure and fair as possible.

It’s impossible to overstate the power of the ballot in American representative democracy. Our vote is our voice that government must recognize.

That should make for a solemn duty of government to ensure that elections are conducted securely, accurately and fairly.

That need’s front and center in Georgia now as the state rolls out a new voting system.

In addition to high-level national ideals that affect us, Georgia has some unique challenges that must be correctly dealt with if citizens are to have necessary trust in the integrity of our elections.

Georgia’s not nearly there yet. For starters, a history of voting suppression toward African-Americans remains fresh in many minds a full half-century after passage of the Voting Rights Act.

And Election 2018 saw allegations of voting irregularities raised amidst a backdrop of poll closings, reports of malfunctioning, or scarce, voting machines and a candidate for governor in a hard-fought race whose day job was overseeing Georgia’s election apparatus. Suspicions of voting irregularities were very high then and haven’t fully dissipated since.

This state must do better. The mechanical part of vote-recording is being addressed. Our outdated electronic voting system is being replaced. Dominion Voting has been awarded a contract for 30,000 new voting machines and related hardware.

The new machines, like the old system, has voters make ballot choices on a screen. They then print paper ballots that voters should review for accuracy. That’s intended to correct a big minus of the old system, which only recorded voter choices electronically, with no paper backup. Voters had no way to check if the machines had properly logged their choices. Critics of the old system assert that such errors did happen.

And, even with paper ballots, the new machines will still count votes electronically. Critics say that leaves Georgia still vulnerable to errors that would be difficult to detect, and at risk of hacking.

It’s encouraging, though, that skeptics seem to believe that the new system’s at least somewhat of an improvement over the old one.

These concerns should not be discounted by Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. He says the new system will be safe.

Since he and his office are directly responsible for ensuring elections’ integrity, we consider Raffensperger’s recent statements a direct commitment to do just that. And Georgians are right to expect that any problems or disputes around elections be aired directly, and openly.

We asked Raffensperger’s office to pen a guest column expanding on his support of the new system. Instead, they offered a piece from David Becker that is part of today’s package.

The Secretary of State’s office must do everything in its power to make their promises a reality. History gives reason for doubt. Recent problems are cause for worry – and for a redoubling of diligence on the part of state officials.

The AJC recounted Aug. 4 that, “Voter registration information was left exposed on a Kennesaw State University server in 2016. The Secretary of State’s Office inadvertently disclosed Social Security numbers and other private information of registered voters to 12 organizations in 2015. And court testimony last week revealed that the office outsourced ballot formatting to contractors who did the work from their homes.”

And in a particularly troubling incident just days before 2018’s election day, then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s office publicly accused the Democratic Party of Georgia of trying to hack into the voter database. No evidence supported the allegations against the Democrats at the time, and the charge has never been substantiated.

Those unacceptable examples alone are more than sufficient to justify voters’ concern. Raffensperger’s office and other state officials must keep them top of mind as Georgia engineers its new way of voting.

And in an era where malicious foreign interference in elections is quite feasible, it’s worrisome that a Russian agent snooped around election websites of two Georgia counties in 2016. Russian hackers have also reportedly targeted election systems in Florida and Illinois too.

With successful, large-scale cyber-hacks of sensitive personal information regularly making news these days, Georgia officials must take seriously threats and the need for robust, ongoing defenses against them.

That holds true for counties as well as the state. Recurring election-day problems in places like Fulton County and elsewhere indicate significant room for improvement by counties too.

And while our governments must do more to make elections as problem-free and secure as possible, political parties and citizens have obligations too, we believe.

In an age where opinions and feelings can masquerade as verifiable fact, it’s up to all of us to read, study and consult nonpartisan information sources as we research issues around election security and operations.

Election risks are too important to our system of self-governance to be exploited for political gain by either side of the aisle.

In our electronic age, it seems reasonable that a hybrid system like Georgia’s that combines digital vote-counting with a paper trail should yield a result that voters can trust, if administered competently and ethically.

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.

No voting system will ever be perfect. But it’s up to Georgia officials to push hard to make the process as flaw-free and fair as humanly possible.

Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board.