Voters lined up early at Henry W. Grady High School on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017 to cast their votes. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Federal judge weighs throwing out Georgia electronic voting machines

A federal judge said in court Wednesday she’s considering whether the threat of election hacking and foreign interference justifies replacing Georgia’s electronic voting system with paper ballots just weeks before the general election.

U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg said she’ll decide within days whether to force Georgia to use paper ballots instead of touchscreen voting machines, which lack a verifiable paper backup to ensure accurate results and detect tampering.

“We are in a very quickly changing situation in terms of cyber technology and cyber crime,” Totenberg told a packed courtroom after a daylong hearing. “It affects the credibility of the system. No one wants their vote to be insecure.”

While voting rights should be protected, Totenberg said, she also wants to avoid long lines on Election Day, causing voters to consider going home without casting their ballots.

Totenberg plans to rule on a request from concerned Georgia voters and election integrity advocates to prohibit election officials from using the state’s 27,000 direct-recording electronic voting machines. She said a decision could come Friday or Monday.

A crowd of more than 125 people spilled into an overflow courtroom during a long day of testimony from voting technology experts who warned of the dangers of hacking and election officials who said a quick switch to paper ballots would create more problems.

Alex Halderman, a computer science professor from the University of Michigan, showed the court how he could hack an election. Using a voting machine like those in place across Georgia, he inserted a memory card infected with malware to alter results in a quick mock-election.

Elections need to be protected after Russians attempted to tamper with United States elections in 2016, he said.

“Everything changed in 2016,” Halderman testified. “I don’t think there’s anything Georgia can do to responsibly secure the touchscreens in use today.”

He recommended hand-marked paper ballots as a way to foil the possibility of election hacking. If Totenberg agrees, voters would use pens to fill in paper ballots by hand.

But Georgia election officials said a short-notice switch to paper ballots would cause many more problems, especially since early voting begins Oct. 15 for the Nov. 6 general election, featuring the race for governor between Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp.

Georgia Election Director Chris Harvey said paper ballots are more susceptible to recording votes incorrectly, and they’re also vulnerable to potential fraud.

In addition, local governments in Georgia lack enough paper ballot scanners and they haven’t budgeted money to pay for ballot printing costs.

“It would be extremely difficult,” Harvey said. “It would require getting ballots ordered, printed, validated and distributed.”

There’s no evidence that Georgia’s electronic voting machines have been penetrated by hackers during an election, but tech experts say malware could be written so that it’s undetectable, leaving no trace that an election had been thrown.

Georgia government officials are already reviewing possible replacement voting systems that could be used in time for the 2020 presidential election. All of those voting systems include some form of a paper backup.

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