Georgia hurries to deliver new voting machines in time for election

Truckloads of voting machines are arriving daily at a large Atlanta-area warehouse, where workers are unloading piles of cardboard boxes before a critical deadline: the March 24 presidential primary.

It's the largest rollout of elections equipment in U.S. history, with more than 75,000 computers and printers destined for 2,600 voting precincts across Georgia.

State election officials say they’re ahead of schedule. About 88% of voting touchscreens have been received and passed acceptance testing at the state’s warehouse.

Much of the equipment, shrink-wrapped and stacked in long rows, has yet to reach county election offices. About 37% of counties had received their voting equipment as of Tuesday, a number that’s expected to rise to 70% by Jan. 23, according to the secretary of state’s office.

All voting equipment is scheduled for delivery to counties by mid-February, in time for early voting to begin March 2.

"We're going to make it," said Gabriel Sterling, the state's implementation manager of the $104 million voting system purchased from Dominion Voting Systems, the nation's second-biggest voting company. "At the end of the day, this is what everybody wants. We want people to go to these machines, cast their votes and feel confident that their vote counts."

Skeptics doubt claims that all is well with the new voting system, which combines touchscreens and printed paper ballots.

State election officials and Dominion have shifted tight equipment delivery schedules that were originally set when the voting system was purchased last summer, edging closer to the firmest of deadlines on Election Day.

“It isn’t responsible to push things through when the state isn’t ready,” said Jeanne Dufort, a Madison voter who wants the state to switch to hand-marked paper ballots. “It’s the middle of January, and most counties still don’t have their equipment. They can’t train and they can’t prepare. The question is, will voters be disenfranchised because of missed deadlines?”

But Sterling said those fears are unfounded. Delivery schedules on large projects like this one frequently change, and he said the state expected potential delays.

It took longer than initially planned to get all the equipment in part because the state increased its order of touchscreens to 33,100, an increase of 3,000 to ensure the state had enough to accommodate voters, Sterling said. In addition, a federal judge required the state to run a test election with hand-marked paper ballots, and the election officials had to coordinate two special elections for legislators who recently died.

After boxes are unloaded at the state’s warehouse, they wind through a snakelike line of about 50 workers who ensure the equipment is functioning correctly. The workers complete acceptance testing of about 450 voting touchscreens daily before they’re boxed, sealed and prepared for shipment to each of Georgia’s 159 counties. The equipment rarely has mechanical problems, but workers occasionally find and correct mistakes with settings and configurations, Sterling said.

Every county will receive its election management system by Feb. 1, which is needed to create ballots for military and overseas voters who have requested ballots that must be mailed during the first week in February.

While all essential voting equipment will be ready on time, optional items such as carrying bags could come later, Sterling said. Also, some counties like Cobb didn’t have enough time to order adjustable tables for the touchscreens. Most counties will place the touchscreens on top of existing tables in precincts.

“It’s a very tight schedule. We’re all aware of that,” said Janine Eveler, the elections director in Cobb, which has received about 90% of its voting equipment. “We’re confident it will be in place and available and ready to go. We may not have all those nice-to-have items until later elections.”

In Fulton County, the state’s most populous county, delivery of the equipment will begin Monday, Fulton Elections Director Richard Barron said. The county is slated to receive 3,324 touchscreens, 287 ballot scanners and 663 voter check-in tablets.

Barron said he’s anxious for the state to release its poll worker training manual by the end of the month, but he’s not worried about receiving his county’s equipment.

“I’m unconcerned about the late delivery,” Barron said. “My warehouse staff is large, and we have money to hire more people or to pay overtime to get ready. It will be challenging, but we feel ready to go.”

There's little room for error. U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg ruled in August that the state must be prepared to use hand-marked paper ballots if the new voting system isn't "completely rolled out and ready for operation in time for the March 2020 presidential primary elections."

Unexpected difficulties with the new voting system could arise between now and Election Day, Sterling said, but so far the installation is smooth and on time.

“We’re hoping that a system like this with a verifiable paper ballot will reinvigorate faith in democracy and have more and more people come to vote,” Sterling said. “I want everybody in this state that’s registered to vote ready to use these machines.”

By the numbers

33,100 touchscreens

33,100 printers

7,721 voter check-in tablets

3,471 precinct ballot scanners

183 mobile ballot printers

Source: Georgia secretary of state’s office