An election primer on Georgia’s voting system and ballot security

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If you vote in Georgia, you care about ballot security. And ahead of this fall’s presidential election, it’s never been more in the news.

In the wake of Republican nominee Donald Trump's call on supporters to prevent a "rigged" election in November, and federal officials warning of cybersecurity threats after hackers appeared to have targeted elections systems in Arizona and Illinois, we asked the state's Center for Election Systems to give us a primer on key issues raised by experts about Georgia's system.

The center, based at Kennesaw State University, has since 2002 worked on behalf of the state to oversee the operation of the machines and make sure the intricate web of Georgia’s voting system performs smoothly for every federal, state and county election. Here’s how the voting system in Georgia works in relation to security issues (and why the guys who run it are not nearly as worried as you are).

Issue No. 1: The age of voting machines

Many of the more than 27,000 voting machines in Georgia are at least 13 years old. It's an issue across the country, with the Brennan Center for Justice estimating at least 43 states are using machines this year that have been around for at least a decade.

Why is that a potential problem? The expected life span of core components in machines purchased since 2000 is between 10 and 20 years — but closer to 10. Technology, too, changes rapidly, and many older systems were not designed to last for decades. Among the biggest risks, according to experts, are increased failures and crashes — which can lead to long lines and lost votes.

Georgia’s Merle King, however, said voters should have no doubt the state’s machines are maintained well and in good working order. King, who is the executive director of the state’s election systems center, said a statewide review last year found that about 98 percent of the machines were available and ready to go. Repairs in each of the past 10 years or so have affected only about 1 percent of machines in the state annually.

The state buys refurbished parts sold by other public agencies or third-party vendors. Everything gets tested by the center before it’s allowed back in the field. That includes the operating software used to run the machines, which is circa Windows 2000 — software no longer supported by Microsoft.

The machines could work on a newer operating system, King said, but making changes would violate federal certification for Georgia’s entire elections system.

King, however, downplayed any threat to the system because the machines are self-contained and never connected to the internet — not during testing, and not during an election. The machines are also required to be kept under lock and key. Access to them is limited when they are not in use for voting, with plastic seals affixed to the machines.

Issue No. 2: No paper trail

When the state last overhauled its elections system in 2002, it also committed to using what in the industry are called “direct-recording electronic” voting machines, or DREs, known by voters for their touch screens.

At the same time, it also eliminated a paper trail of recorded votes, something one expert, University of North Carolina professor Zeynep Tufekci, told NPR was "such an important, crucial thing" to have.

Georgia’s machines can be retrofitted with paper spools to record votes as they’re cast electronically to create something called a “voter-verified paper audit trail.” State officials tried it once during a 2005 pilot program, attaching the spools to some machines during an election. They also immediately ran into problems that made them nix the idea.

In one county, the spools jammed and showed a different number of votes recorded, setting off a crisis that King described as, “So do we throw out that one vote (which) we know is good if we have no corresponding paper audit trail for it? And what is our legal basis for doing so?”

The guiding mantra of election officials in Georgia is a single sentence in the state constitution that says the ballot must be private. Ballots cast on the machines are randomized. The paper trail was serialized, meaning someone could monitor the order of voters and count back to tell who cast which votes.

There was no way to make the spools useful for voters with disabilities, such as someone who could not see.

Finally, officials realized they would have an operational problem: “The conclusion that we reached after the pilot was we would not be able to perform a recount on a statewide election in time for that person to take office in January,” King said.

None of that means Georgia can’t use paper; it just won’t be with the current system. It would require a complete change-out to new machines.

Issue No. 3: Election hacking

It’s easy to think of an elections system as one common, connected entity. The reality, however, is much different. Think of it as a series of independent systems that, despite being purposefully isolated, also work in conjunction toward a common goal.

The fear, of course, is that someone has still gained access to it and rigged the results.

While anything is possible, the system has different layers of security and controls built into it to limit and detect such a breach. Georgia’s voting machines, for example, have no direct electronic connection to the state’s election night reporting system (the online system you log into to see the results).

Voting transaction logs, kept on devices called electronic poll books, have no online interface. Same for every ballot used in every election in Georgia; each of them is individually made by the state elections center using an internal system that is not connected to the internet.

The state’s voting machines communicate with the state’s election management server via a memory card — again, no direct electronic connection. A different memory card is used for every machine in every precinct in each of Georgia’s 159 counties, each encrypted with its own code.

The system does not allow a county to close out its election until the server reads each card and its encryption key. If someone were to try to substitute a fake card, the server would not recognize it and would stop tabulation in the system to signal a problem.

Same for the thin plastic voter access cards poll workers hand to each voter after he or she signs in. Voters stick those cards into the voting machines to access a ballot. Each card is tracked — poll workers know the number of voters who walk in, the number of check-ins on a precinct’s poll book and the number of cards handed out.

Those numbers must match the internal counters in the voting machines. If there is an anomaly, it has to be explained or the results can’t be tabulated.

King believes an attempted breach would be found within minutes.

More likely to disrupt the election is human error. A county elections office accidentally sends a poll book to the wrong precinct. A church board forgets to tell local elections officials its church isn’t available as a polling location. Some county will dig up a water main in front of a precinct and it will create delays.

“There are many, many things that disrupt an election,” King said. “Part of your training as an election official is to recover and keep the election moving forward.”

Every local election official in Georgia receives 64 hours of training, including on the use, maintenance and security of the system. And they’re tested on that.

Issue No. 4: Revamping Georgia’s election system

The decision is, in so many words, a political and financial one. The current system, by and large, works. It meets federal certification standards. But it is old.

A two-year rolling outlook of expected performance provided annually to state officials by the elections center has predicted the system will perform well through the 2018 voting cycle. There is no plan currently to make a change, but when the time comes, it would be a joint decision between the state Legislature, the governor and the secretary of state.

Millions of dollars would need to be spent. Each new voting machine would cost between $2,500 and $3,000, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Additional expenses would include testing, training, transportation and maintenance.

But doing so would address many of the concerns. Newer generations of voting machines provide easier use of paper audit trails. Touch-screen technology has improved. In many cases the machines are smaller, needing less storage space.

In the meantime, “it’s not like we’re looking at our circumstances and saying our best bet is to do nothing,” King said. “I think underneath the surface there’s a lot of things going on.”