When Gov. Brian Kemp hired an election company’s lobbyist this month, the move raised alarm bells about one company’s influence on Georgia’s upcoming purchase of a new statewide voting system.
Concerns from government accountability advocates only grew days later, when a commission created by Kemp recommended that the state buy the type of voting machines sold by the lobbyist's company, Election Systems & Software. Several other vendors also offer similar voting machines.
Then Kemp proposed spending $150 million on a new statewide voting system, an amount that matches estimates for the cost of the system promoted by ES&S, called ballot-marking devices, which use a combination of touchscreens and ballot printers.
The latest moves fueled suspicions that cozy connections between lobbyists, Kemp and other elected officials will lead to ES&S winning a rich contract to sell its computerized voting products to the state government, even though 55 percent of Georgia voters said in a poll by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution this month that they prefer a cheaper system where paper ballots are filled in by voters.
After Kemp faced allegations from his opponent, Democrat Stacey Abrams, that he used his position as Georgia’s secretary of state to run an unfair election for governor last year, he’s now being accused of tilting the procurement of voting machines toward ES&S, which is the state’s current election company.
Election security advocates, including the only cybersecurity expert on Kemp's voting system commission, want the state government to move to paper ballots bubbled in by hand and counted by optical scanning machines, saying they're less expensive and more accountable. By comparison, the machines recommended by a majority of the commission require voters to use touchscreens to make their selections and then insert their printed ballots into scanning machines.
Kemp and ES&S say the process to replace Georgia's 17-year-old electronic voting machines will be transparent and competitive, and that the firm's relationship with the governor's staff gives it no edge over the six other election companies that have expressed interest.
"It's cronyism at its worst to push for a less fiscally responsible option to benefit these companies that aren't best for local communities," said Dan Savickas of FreedomWorks, a conservative advocacy group seeking paper ballots.
Kemp and Georgia election officials have supported ES&S for about 10 years:
- The ES&S lobbyist, former state Rep. Chuck Harper, now serves as Kemp's deputy chief of staff. Prior to lobbying for ES&S, Harper was a lobbyist for the Georgia Secretary of State's Office under Kemp from 2012 to 2017.
- Kemp's new executive counsel, David Dove, was a member of ES&S' advisory board when he attended a Las Vegas conference hosted by the company in March 2017. Dove served as Kemp's chief of staff when he was secretary of state.
- Kemp chose ES&S' voting system for a test run during a Conyers election in November 2017.
- ES&S is Georgia's current election company, responsible for providing technical support and repairs of the state's 27,000 direct-recording electronic voting machines, which the state originally purchased for $54 million from Diebold Election Systems in 2002.
A spokeswoman for Kemp said Harper’s prior role as a lobbyist enabled him to serve as a liaison to the Secretary of State’s Office, county election officials and ES&S. Harper didn’t meet with state legislators when he was a lobbyist and only visited the Capitol once in 2017 for a visit with Kemp’s staff, and ES&S wasn’t discussed, said the spokeswoman, Candice Broce.
She said Dove’s state-funded visit to the ES&S conference was “imperative,” as the company was soliciting input from election officials across the country.
“Previous work as a lobbyist is not a disqualifier for public service,” Broce said. “People should not bend the facts to suit a narrative. Mr. Harper and Mr. Dove are men of integrity. They followed the law. They will continue to do so.”
A spokeswoman for ES&S said Harper’s appointment to Kemp’s staff won’t give the company an advantage.
“The state Legislature, not government employees, will set the specifications of Georgia’s next voting system. We expect a highly competitive, fair and transparent procurement process,” said Katina Granger of ES&S.
In all, six lobbyists for ES&S were registered in Georgia last year, including Harper and other well-known lobbyists such as Trip Martin and Skin Edge, according to state ethics commission records. An additional 10 lobbyists, including former Secretary of State Lewis Massey, were employed by four other election companies.
“The lobbyists are very powerful, and they are advocating machines that make it impossible for voters to verify their ballots,” said Garland Favorito, who founded a group called Voter GA to seek secure elections. “The worst ballot-marking devices have the most powerful lobbyists.”
Along with the lobbyists, elected officials have lined up to support the kind of ballot-marking devices sold by ES&S. The company also offers a hand-marked paper ballot voting system, according to its response to the state’s request for information last fall.
Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger spoke in favor of ballot-marking devices during budget hearings last week, saying they're more accurate because computer-printed ballots avoid ambiguity that could be introduced by stray marks on hand-marked ballots. But he also said he wouldn't bias the state's selection of a voting technology.
“I don’t have a predetermined outcome,” Raffensperger said. “I want a fair process.”
Senate Rules Chairman Jeff Mullis was forceful in his opposition to hand-marked paper ballots when he spoke on the Senate floor recently.
“I’m telling you, no paper ballots. They’re fraudulent,” said Mullis, a Republican from Chickamauga. “The most secure place in our entire election system should be the ballot box, and I will not stand here and let paper ballots take us back to the Dark Ages.”
House Speaker David Ralston, a Republican from Blue Ridge, has also said Georgia should use the more technological voting system, which is what ES&S and most other voting companies are pushing.
Democrats, the minority party in the Georgia General Assembly, have pledged to fight for hand-marked paper ballots.
"It seems clear that the state is moving toward ballot-marking devices, and that's evident by the line item in the budget," said state Rep. Scott Holcomb, a Democrat from Atlanta. "We're not on a level playing field. I hope the fact that the clear majority of Georgians believe hand-marked paper ballots are the way to go has significant influence."
Legislators recently had an opportunity to see a demonstration of voting systems offered by one of ES&S’ competitors. The company, Hart InterCivic, showed both ballot-marking devices and hand-marked paper ballots to lawmakers gathered in a conference room at the Georgia Capitol.
“The process has been transparent thus far,” said Steven Sockwell, a spokesman for Hart InterCivic. “We have presented our solutions to elected officials, election professionals and the general public on multiple occasions, and we believe our advantages are obvious to objective audiences.”
Georgia’s government has a history of tailoring state laws to accommodate a single election vendor.
Before Georgia voters used the state’s electronic voting machines for the first time in 2002, the General Assembly changed a state law requiring an independent audit trail of each vote cast. Lifting that requirement paved the way for the state to buy Diebold’s voting machines, which lacked a paper trail to back up electronic vote counts.
ES&S now provides technical support and maintenance for the state’s Diebold voting machines.
Georgia lawmakers are feeling pressure from lobbyists and salespeople pushing the state to use ballot-marking devices, said Marian Schneider, the president of Verified Voting, a national election integrity organization. Verified Voting is advocating for hand-marked paper ballots, and four lobbyists for the organization are registered in Georgia.
“There does seem to be an interest in having every voter use a ballot-marking device, which is an all-electronic system,” Schneider said. “It will be an uphill climb to say we’re going to do paper ballots with a pen or pencil as the primary voting method.”
Legislation for a new voting system will likely be introduced in the coming weeks. If it passes the General Assembly, a contract will be competitively bid among companies that meet the state’s requirements.