09/16/2019 -- Atlanta, Georgia -- Chris Harvey, director of elections division for the Georgia Secretary of State, shows off the new Georgia voting machines during a demonstration at the James H. "Sloppy" Floyd building in Atlanta, Monday, September 16, 2019. (Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

Georgia bets on new voting system amid high-stakes election

With a presidential election on the line in 2020, Georgia is switching to a new voting company, Dominion Voting Systems, that state evaluators ranked second-best and that critics said will leave elections vulnerable.

Dominion, based in Denver, must rush to install 30,000 voting machines for 7 million Georgia voters before the March 24 presidential primary, the largest rollout of elections equipment in U.S. history. Most voters in Tuesday’s local elections will cast ballots on Georgia’s 17-year-old machines, and voters in six counties are testing Dominion’s machines.

The company faces intense scrutiny in Georgia, one of the most competitive states in the nation entering an election year featuring President Donald Trump and two U.S. Senate seats on the ballot. The challenge for Dominion is to seamlessly introduce computer-printed paper ballots in a state criticized last year over allegations of vote flipping, missing voter registrations, precinct closures, long lines and voter purges.

The swift transition to new voting equipment has raised eyebrows far from Georgia.

“What Georgia is trying to do basically blows my mind,” said Dwight Shellman, an election official at the Colorado secretary of state’s office. His state adopted a Dominion system in 2016.

“We had 2 1/2 years to do it, and it was challenging,” Shellman said. “I can’t imagine implementing the number of counties Georgia has in, what, two months? Three months?”

Actually, the work will take eight months. But the challenge remains daunting.

Scott Tucker from Dominion Voting unloads equipment for his presentation in August 2018 in Grovetown. Voting machine companies demonstrated their products at a meeting of then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s Secure, Accessible & Fair Elections Commission, which evaluated whether to switch from electronic voting machines to ones that offer paper ballots for verification and auditing. Vendors who attended the meeting included Clear Ballot, Unisyn Voting Solutions, Smartmatic, Election Systems & Software, Hart InterCivic and Dominion Voting. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Jeanne Dufort, a voter in Madison who advocates for hand-marked paper ballots in elections, said she’s worried the state will “take shortcuts” to get the new election system installed in time for the presidential primary. If the company falls short, every voter in the state will have to fill out paper ballots by hand, according to a federal judge’s order in August.

“The general way you deliver more than you’ve ever been asked to, in a short time frame, is you cut corners,” said Dufort, a real estate agent who previously worked in supply-chain management. “The last thing I want to do is predict failure, but what I want to predict is a logistics challenge they aren’t prepared for and a timeline that’s short.”

Dominion, the second-largest voting company in the country, says it’s up to the job.

“It is an ambitious timetable, and it will require a great deal of coordination, but we have worked very closely with the state and county officials in order to make it go smoothly,” said Kay Stimson, a spokeswoman for Dominion who previously managed communications for the National Association of Secretaries of State. “Not only do we have the experience in doing an implementation of this scale, we are perhaps one of the only companies that could have carried it off effectively.”

But while the company operates in thousands of precincts nationwide, from California to New York, it has never installed so much equipment at once and on such a tight schedule.

How we got the story

Georgia awarded a $107 million contract to Dominion Voting Systems this summer, setting off a quick transition to a new statewide voting system in time for the March 24 presidential primary.

To evaluate the company, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution scrutinized procurement documents, election certification records, lobbyist filings and corporate ownership information to report on Dominion's history. We also reported on other areas' experience with Dominion's voting equipment, including Colorado, Texas and Cook County, Ill.

Elections scorecard

Dominion won Georgia’s $107 million elections contract this summer because it was the lowest bidder — not the best, according to score sheets from six state evaluators. The nation’s largest elections company and the state’s existing provider, Election Systems & Software, received the highest technical score but lost the contract because of its $143 million price tag.

The evaluators, who judged voting companies on 100 criteria, were concerned that Dominion initially said it couldn’t deliver its equipment before the end of March, according to evaluation documents. They also said that while Dominion had demonstrated its experience in other states, none of the other states had as many voters as Georgia.

Dominion later adjusted its schedule to meet the state’s deadlines. The company has delivered more than 10,000 voting machines so far, and implementation is on schedule, according to the secretary of state’s office. Dominion must install voting machines, printers and ballot scanners, then test them and train poll workers, all before Election Day.

Dominion cites its experience in other parts of the country, saying it’s prepared to handle Georgia’s elections.

New polling machines wait to be used at the Paulding County Municipal Building in Dallas, Georgia. Paulding is one of six counties where the new machines are being tested ahead of statewide use in Georgia’s presidential primary on March 24. (Photo/Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

In Colorado, where 95% of voters cast ballots by mail, election officials rolled out Dominion’s in-person voting system to more than 50 counties over two years. There were some initial hiccups — for example, the limited size of a Dominion database delayed the counting of ballots in one county in 2016.

But Shellman said Dominion has worked with the state to improve the voting system.

“There are always places for improvement. We keep working on that, year after year,” Shellman said. “This year, I feel Dominion just knocked it out of the park.”

Cook County, Ill., tested its new Dominion Voting system in 147 precincts in April. Like Georgia, Cook County plans to roll out the new system to all of its 1,599 precincts in the Chicago area for its presidential primary in March.

Deputy Clerk of Elections Edmund Michalowski said voters liked the new system, and the test went smoothly. He said Dominion has been responsive.

“It’s still a daunting task to move from 147 (precincts) to 1,600, but it’s been a good transition,” Michalowski said.

By comparison, Georgia plans to install Dominion’s equipment in 2,660 precincts statewide.

Other jurisdictions recently decided not to use Dominion’s system.

In June, South Carolina chose Election Systems & Software over Dominion. Some evaluators said the company lacked experience with statewide elections.

Texas also considered a Dominion voting system this year. But when the company demonstrated the system, it did not go well.

State evaluators witnessed numerous hardware and software problems. For example, when a ballot printer tray was ajar during voting, it wiped out the voter’s ballot selections, requiring the voter to start again.

Among the other problems noted: A ballot scanner jammed several times. And the tablet computers that voters used to cast their ballots failed under certain circumstances, and it took 10 to 20 minutes to restore them.

The evaluators also said company employees demonstrating the product seemed unprepared.

“I would expect that for a certification exam, Dominion would be very motivated to make sure everything went according to plan,” one evaluator wrote. “I have serious concerns regarding the level of training Dominion personnel are receiving that make me question the quality of support jurisdictions would receive once a sale is made.”

In June, Texas declined to certify Dominion’s system.

A statewide concern

Dominion’s voting machinery is widely used in California, Colorado, Michigan and New York, among other states.

It’s one of a few companies that could take on Georgia’s statewide voting system, simply because there aren’t many election companies in the market.

Election equipment in the United States is dominated by Dominion, ES&S and Hart InterCivic as the elections industry has consolidated in recent years. Dominion covered 37% of eligible voters in the country, according to “The Business of Voting,” a 2016 report by the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Founded in 2003 in Toronto, Dominion is privately owned by its management team and a New York-based private equity firm called Staple Street Capital Management, which also owns Six Flags Entertainment, a self-storage company, an after-market electronic equipment company and an essential oils manufacturer.

Dominion cited its connections to Georgia when it bid on the state’s contract. The company’s regional sales manager is Barry Herron, who led the implementation of the existing voting system in Georgia in 2002.

In addition, campaign finance records show that Dominion employed prominent lobbyists during this year’s legislative session, which set the parameters for the state’s voting machine contract and budgeted $150 million for the job.

Dominion’s 10 lobbyists include former Secretary of State Lewis Massey and Jared Thomas, a former campaign manager and elections staffer for Gov. Brian Kemp when he was secretary of state. When reached by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Massey referred questions to Dominion.

Other voting companies also sent lobbyists to the Georgia Capitol, including six for Election Systems & Software and three for Hart InterCivic.

The goal of Dominion’s lobbyists was to seek an “open and fair procurement process,” Stimson said.

“The state did a very good job of maintaining its neutrality and transparency,” Stimson said. “We would say that our efforts were successful.”

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger instituted a policy that his office staff wouldn’t have contact with any election vendor’s lobbyists, and he didn’t take campaign contributions from them, spokesman Walter Jones said. In addition, the state’s contract evaluators weren’t known to lobbyists.

Raffensperger received a $2,500 contribution from Courtney Leiendecker, the wife of Scott Leiendecker, the managing director for KnowInk, a Dominion subcontractor that’s providing the state’s voter check-in computers. That contribution came Nov. 26, when Raffensperger was in a runoff for secretary of state.

Dominion won Georgia’s voting contract because the company guaranteed a fair, accurate and verifiable election process, Jones said.

“The evaluation committee concluded that Dominion satisfied the state’s technical requirements, and its selection also represented the best value for Georgia,” Jones said. “Dominion received high scores for implementation and training, which was a consideration in assuring the system will be in place for the March 24 primary.”

A new way of voting

Election integrity advocates increasingly demanded paper ballots after the 2016 presidential election because of fear of Russian interference, and companies promoted new voting equipment that combined touchscreens with printed-out paper ballots, like the kind that will be used in Georgia, said Matthew Caulfield, a co-author of the University of Pennsylvania report on the voting industry.

Voters will make their choices on the touchscreens, called ballot-marking devices, which are attached to printers that produce a ballot. Voters can then review their choices on their ballots before inserting them into scanning machines for tabulation.

“Ballot-marking devices are now sort of a standard,” Caulfield said. “If you want to produce a paper record, a typical mode of doing that is with a ballot-marking device.”

An ongoing federal lawsuit argues that ballot-marking devices could be tampered with or fail to produce accurate results.

The lawsuit is asking a judge to order Georgia to use hand-marked paper ballots, arguing that they more directly reflect voters’ intent. In addition, the new voting machines will scan unreadable bar codes instead of the printed-out text of voters’ choices, leading to concerns that voters won’t be able to tell whether their ballot is counted correctly.

Andrew Appel, an election security expert at Princeton University, said Georgia currently “has the least-secure voting machines now of any state” and is right to replace them.

But he said the touchscreen ballot-marking devices and optical scanners of the new system are easily hackable. And the system relies on voters to check their own paper ballots, when research shows they do a poor job of it.

The ideal solution, Appel said: hand-marked paper ballots that voters scan into an optical reader — a system adopted by some 40 states. Though the scanners are still hackable, he said a sample of the original paper ballots can and should be audited.

“Georgia is buying a solution that’s more expensive than the other solution,” Appel said. “But the main point is, it’s less secure than the other solution.”

Hand-marked paper ballots would likely cost less than the ballot-marking device system purchased in Georgia. For example, in Pennsylvania, counties that exclusively bought ballot-marking devices spent nearly twice as much per voter than counties that primarily rely on hand-marked paper ballots, according to a report this summer by the University of Pittsburgh Institute for Cyber Law, Policy, and Security.

Dominion maintains that its voting system is secure, and that computer-aided voting reduces errors while accommodating voters with disabilities.

“Security is one aspect of the equation, but federal and state law equally recognize privacy, accessibility and usability,” Stimson said. “We have to make sure that anything that increases or enhances security doesn’t reduce accessibility or privacy.”

During the 2016 election, about 70% of voters in the United States used equipment that produced some sort of paper record, such as paper ballots bubbled in by hand or printed by computer, according to Verified Voting, a national election integrity organization. By 2020, about 87% of voters — including Georgians — will have some form of paper ballot.

Now that Georgia has selected Dominion, many areas across Georgia, such as Fulton County, are anxious to receive their new voting machines, Fulton Elections Director Richard Barron said.

Poll worker training and equipment testing can’t be done until then. In addition, the State Election Board hasn’t yet approved rules and procedures for how to conduct elections with the new voting machines.

Voting machines likely won’t arrive until after this fall’s local elections and potential runoffs, he said.

“The timeline is somewhat crunched, but we’ll get it done,” Barron said. “We may have to put in some long hours to make it happen.”

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