Georgia voting machine debate pits election officials vs. tech experts

Senate votes Wednesday on $150 million statewide voting system

Georgia lawmakers are preparing for final votes on a statewide voting system that’s strongly supported by government workers experienced in running elections and just as staunchly opposed by computing experts who see an imminent threat to election security.

The conflict over election integrity will be a driving force in Wednesday's state Senate vote to switch Georgia to a $150 million voting system that combines touchscreens and printed-out paper ballots. The state's current electronic voting machines don't produce paper ballots.

Voters would pick their candidates on touchscreens that are attached to ballot printers. Then voters could review their printed choices before inserting their ballots into scanning machines.

The Republican majority in the Georgia General Assembly is siding with election officials who want to install the new voting machinery, called ballot-marking devices, in time for next year's presidential primary election. The measure, House Bill 316, has already passed the state House, and Republican Gov. Brian Kemp supports the voting technology.

Democratic legislators are aligned with cybersecurity experts who prefer paper ballots bubbled in with pens, a voting method that avoids the inherent risks of a computerized system.

There's no evidence that Georgia's voting machines have been hacked during an election, but computing experts say malware could be written so that it's undetectable.

Election officials say voters can trust them to keep results accurate in the future, just as they have during the past 17 years when the current electronic voting machines have been used in Georgia. They dismiss concerns from the tech crowd, which says the danger of vote manipulation is real.

“We know the security of our system. We program these units ourselves, so we’re confident that Georgia will remain a state that isn’t hackable,” said Cynthia Willingham, the elections supervisor for Rockdale County. “With any voting system in the United States, there’s a possibility that it could be tampered with. The key is that, as election officials, we’ll ensure that it isn’t.”

But computing professionals say election administrators and state legislators are ignoring the potential problems of computerized voting and ballot-printing.

A group of 24 computer scientists sent a letter in January urging Georgia officials to abandon touchscreen voting. They include university professors who say computer-printed paper ballots wouldn’t be a reliable check on election accuracy because many voters wouldn’t verify or remember all their choices.

study published in November found that nearly half of voters in a Tennessee election last year didn't review their ballots printed from the same kind of machines as those under consideration in Georgia, and many voters who were surveyed misidentified which ballot they had voted on. The study was written by Georgia Tech researchers Richard DeMillo and Robert Kadel, and Marilyn Marks of the Coalition for Good Governance, who oppose ballot-marking devices.

Critics of ballot-marking devices also say that even though printed ballots include the names of candidates, votes would be encoded in bar codes that humans can’t authenticate.

“There’s nothing speculative about these vulnerabilities,” said DeMillo, a Georgia Tech computer science professor and former chief technology officer for Hewlett-Packard. “If exploited, it would affect the result of the election. It’s not a secure system.”

An unexplained irregularity

DeMillo said there's already evidence of problems with electronic voting in Georgia: the unexplained drop-off in votes in the lieutenant governor's race in November, an issue that occurred only on voting machines but not on absentee paper ballots. About 80,000 fewer votes were counted in the lieutenant governor's race between Republican Geoff Duncan and Democrat Sarah Riggs Amico than the average of ballots recorded in 10 statewide contests in the Nov. 6 election.

It’s unknown whether the dip in votes occurred because of voting machine error, ballot layout, human choice, election hacking or some other reason.

Still, county election officials and Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said voters can have confidence in the state’s next voting system.

They said voting will remain easy on a touchscreen, paper ballots will be audited, votes won’t be discarded because of stray pen marks, and voting machines can accommodate people with disabilities by adjusting type size or providing audio through headphones.

“Touchscreen-marked paper ballots will provide the most accuracy and clarity in our elections since voters will have a clear choice with the touch of a button,” Raffensperger said. “The advantage of having that paper and being able to do that audit is you’ll know the winner really did win, the loser really did lose, and after the election you can move on.”

The outcomes of elections weren't always immediately conclusive in Georgia last year. Democrat Stacey Abrams, who fell about 17,000 votes short of forcing a runoff, didn't end her campaign until 10 days after November's election for governor against Kemp. Another race, for the state House of Representatives, still isn't settled because voters were incorrectly mapped into the wrong district or were ineligible to participate. A judge ordered a redo election between Republicans Chris Erwin and Dan Gasaway, which will take place April 9.

Polling on paper ballots

Most Georgia voters — about 55 percent — prefer paper ballots filled out by voters instead of by computers, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll conducted in January.

Voters who testified during hearings at the Georgia Capitol told lawmakers they support paper ballots completed by hand.

“When it comes to computers, it is not a matter of if something gets hacked, but when something gets hacked,” Aileen Nakamura, a Sandy Springs resident, said during a hearing last week. “When you have a computer system, that’s always the No. 1 problem.”

Longtime Georgia voting integrity advocate Garland Favorito agreed. He delivered documents to Kemp’s office this week seeking answers about election security and voting system costs.

"Consider what the voters and cybersecurity experts have said over and over again," said Favorito, who founded the group Voter GA. "It's just not in the best interest of the people of Georgia."

Supporters of ballot-marking devices point out that paper ballots have a long history of fraud through ballot-box stuffing. In states that use paper ballots marked by hand, that problem is avoided because the number of ballots counted must match the number of voters who sign in at each precinct.

If the legislation passes the state Senate on Wednesday, it will return to the state House for a final vote since it was amended in a Senate committee. Then it would go to Kemp for his signature.

Afterward, Raffensperger's office would solicit bids from voting machine companies, select a vendor and conduct test runs in municipal elections in November.

Georgia would become the first state in the country to use ballot-marking devices in every precinct. Some jurisdictions in 24 states use similar voting systems, often to assist voters with disabilities.

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