Early voters wait outside George Pierce Park Community Recreation Center in Suwanee on Wednesday, October 26, 2016. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: Hyosub Shin
Photo: Hyosub Shin

Georgia voting machine suspected of ‘flipping’ presidential votes

A voting machine in Bryan County that may have been “flipping” some Georgia voters’ picks for president has been removed from service, after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported the problem to state elections officials.

The Secretary of State’s Office has expressed confidence in the state’s voting machines. It has launched an investigation into the Bryan County case and responded to a complaint in another county that turned up no error. Meanwhile, the Georgia NAACP says it has received unconfirmed reports about similar problems in a handful of other counties.

In Bryan, a voter who experienced a problem while early voting contacted the AJC, saying it took three tries Tuesday on a machine at the county’s administration complex in Richmond Hill before it correctly recorded his choice of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

He said on the first two tries, he selected Clinton but the touch screen on the machine then changed to show his selection as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, which he canceled before trying again. He said his wife had a similar experience on the same machine.

The voter requested that the AJC not publish his name. A third voter contacted the AJC on Thursday to say the same thing happened to her last week at the same location.

The Georgia Secretary of State’s Office has opened an investigation into what state officials said are uncommon and isolated incidents involving the calibration of the machine, which uses a touch screen to record votes. It comes, however, during a time of heightened rhetoric over Trump’s claim of a “rigged” election and national concern over the security of the nation’s voting system.

“We are confident that machines are not ‘flipping’ votes,” said David Dove, the office’s chief of staff and legal counsel. “It appears with this particular machine that the county did not properly conduct logic and accuracy testing on this unit. That test ensures the geographic areas on the unit’s screen correspond to the underlying ballot format. This testing is required by state law.”

Georgia NAACP President Francys Johnson said the organization has received unconfirmed reports of similar problems in counties including DeKalb, Bulloch, Chatham, Dodge, Effingham and Macon-Bibb. He called Thursday for the state to post advisory notices next to voting machines encouraging voters to double-check their choices to make sure they had been properly recorded.

“Thus far, we don’t expect that it’s anything other than a glitch,” Johnson said.

NAACP leaders in North Carolina made a similar request of that state earlier this week after hearing about problems in five counties of voting machines improperly identifying a voter’s choice of candidate.

Georgia’s Dove said the Secretary of State’s Office had received a complaint about a voting machine in Putnam County. An investigator sent to monitor the unit, however, did not see the problem reoccur.

Bryan County Election Supervisor Cindy Reynolds told the AJC that the machine in question was one of eight in operation for early voting. On Tuesday, she said, at least 20 people had previously used the machine that day. No one reported any problems to poll workers but, she said, “I went ahead and took it down just to be sure.”

Merle King, the executive director of the state’s Center for Election Systems at Kennesaw State University, said it seemed likely that the issue was related to the machine’s calibration.

Georgia, since 2002, has used what in the industry are called “direct-recording electronic” voting machines, or DREs, known by voters for their touch screens. To accurately collect a voter’s intent, the touch screen must be tilted toward the voter at approximately a 45-degree angle. If it is improperly calibrated, King said, it will mark the voter’s choice either above or below the intended target area.

In this instance, King said, “it sounds like the voter did the correct thing — they checked the summary screen for correctness before casting the ballot.”

King called the problem “uncommon,” noting that the state has “already had close to 800,000 ballots cast on the DREs (this fall) and this is the first report we have had.”

While use of the machine has been stopped, King said, all votes already cast on it will be tabulated after Election Day polls close Nov. 8.

Many of the more than 27,000 voting machines in Georgia are at least 13 years old, and aging machines are an issue for states across the country. The state, however, regularly tests the machines, and officials said the system was ready for the election this year.

Early voting in Georgia began Oct. 17 and runs through Nov. 4. Turnout is running about 4.5 percent ahead of 2012 for the same time period during the last presidential election four years ago.

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