Exclusive: Details on Georgia’s test to use paper ballots in elections

Voters turn out at the Roswell Branch Public Library in June to cast early ballots in the 6th Congressional District special election. (Photo by Phil Skinner)

Voters turn out at the Roswell Branch Public Library in June to cast early ballots in the 6th Congressional District special election. (Photo by Phil Skinner)

Georgia for the first time in nearly a decade will pilot the use of paper ballots this November in a local municipal election, the first step toward what officials said could be a statewide switch to a new voting system.

Voters in Conyers will use the ballots along with new electronic record, voting and tabulating machines for a Nov. 7 election for mayor and two City Council seats.

If all goes as planned, it's the first time voters — excluding absentee voters — will have cast ballots on a system with a paper component since 2008. Back then, officials attached paper spools for a local election on some of the state's existing electronic voting machines but decided the process was too cumbersome to proceed.

It also sets the stage for conversations at the state Capitol about how Georgia can transition away from the aging election system it currently uses. The state last overhauled its system in 2002, at a cost of at least $54 million, when it committed to the now-familiar touch-screen direct-recording electronic voting machines, or DREs, that millions of voters here still use today.

At the same time, it eliminated a paper trail of recorded votes — something election experts now warn against.

“Purchasing a new voting system is no small matter,” said Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, whose office is coordinating the pilot program with Rockdale County election officials. “This is a large investment for Georgia, but voting technology has progressed to the point where I feel comfortable inviting a vendor to demonstrate to Georgians a system that could last us for many years to come.”

Here’s how state officials told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution it will work:

  • Voters will check in as usual, but election workers will use a new electronic system with voting rolls. That "poll book" imprints each paper ballot with a ballot number, which tells a voting machine what ballot to use for voting. No personally identifying information is otherwise on the ballot.
  • Voters feed the ballot into a voting machine that has a touch screen (similar to the machines used today). Voters make their choice on the touch screen, and those choices are also thermally imprinted onto the paper ballot.
  • When voting is complete, the ballots are ejected and voters can look over their choices. If they feel something is wrong, they can alert a poll worker who voids the ballot and starts the process again.
  • Once finished, the ballot is then fed into a separate tabulation machine. The machine drops the paper ballot into a locked box while also digitally scanning and recording voters' choices.
  • All results are tabulated on a memory stick, which is then uploaded to the election reporting system. If a candidate requests a recount or if an audit is needed, officials have multiple options including doing one electronically, using the paper backups or both.

The system is made by Election Systems and Software, a Nebraska-based voting software and election management company that Georgia already works with. It’s also one that is used in other states including Arkansas, West Virginia and Tennessee, where voters have used the same configuration that will be tested in Georgia.

David Dove, the chief of staff and legal counsel in the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office, said the office first looked at the system in 2014 but wanted to wait until other jurisdictions across the country had used it. Now that that’s happened, the office has confidence to move forward.

“They did their homework,” company spokeswoman Kathy Rogers said of Georgia. The company is paying for the machines’ use here in the pilot, although Dove said the state has not made a commitment beyond November.

The question of whether the state ultimately moves forward with a wholesale change would likely be a three- to four-year proposition. Officials estimate a cost to implement a similar new system statewide could exceed $100 million and would need sign-off from the governor and state lawmakers. There are no plans currently to make that financial request next year, meaning it would be at least 2019 before it is considered.

Dove said he expected an almost one-for-one swap-out of the state’s existing inventory of 6,000 “poll books” and 27,000 voting machines. Local poll workers and election officials would need time to train, and the state would plan a voter outreach program to familiarize voters on how to use it.

The effort comes, however, as Georgia is under increasing pressure to update its system, which it has maintained in the face of both technological advances and heightened concerned over systemic flaws that could be exploited if the system was ever breached.

It's a fear that has escalated with regular news reports about alleged attempts by Russian hackers to meddle in the 2016 presidential election, an issue raised again recently by the release of a leaked National Security Agency document.

To make matters worse in Georgia, cybersecurity researchers twice since last year accessed highly sensitive documents through a misconfigured server at Kennesaw State University’s Center for Election Systems, an agency that for the past 15 years has helped run elections across the state.

The information included confidential voter data and system passwords — information the researchers said would have also been accessible to anyone who knew where to look on the Internet — raising alarms among voting advocates and experts alike.

Advocates this spring filed a lawsuit to force the use of paper ballots in the hotly contested 6th Congressional District special election, saying the state should discontinue using its voting machines without verifying they had not been breached. A second lawsuit disputing the results under a similar argument is ongoing.

A Fulton County judge in June dismissed the first suit, in part citing an "absence of evidence" that the state's voting machines had widely malfunctioned or skewed results.

Kemp and other elections officials have also maintained that the system is secure, and there is no evidence it has been compromised.

Officials, however, have also begun a forensic review of the current system. Results are months away, but they said they want voters to remain confident in the system.