Judge considers requiring paper ballots for Georgia elections

As Georgia election officials selected a new voting system Monday, a federal judge is wrestling with whether to immediately require paper ballots before the state's current electronic voting machines are set to be used for the last time in this fall's elections.

U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg will decide whether Georgia’s existing touchscreen voting system is too insecure to continue using, a decision that could affect 310 elections planned in cities and counties this fall.

Starting with next year’s presidential primary election, voters will use new voting equipment that combines touchscreens and printed-out paper ballots. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger announced Monday that Dominion Voting won the state’s $107 million contract.

Totenberg said in court Friday that Georgians could be "sitting ducks" because of hacking vulnerabilities in the state's current electronic voting system, which lacks a paper ballot that could be used for audits and recounts. She didn't immediately issue a ruling Friday after two days of testimony from voters, election officials, computer science experts and cybersecurity contractors.

But Totenberg appeared reluctant to throw out the state’s 17-year-old voting machines this close to November’s elections.

She said “it might be extra challenging” to change to hand-marked paper ballots, then go through another transition to the state’s new voting system before the presidential primary election March 24.

“These are very difficult issues,” Totenberg said at the close of Friday’s hearing. “I’ll wrestle with them the best that I can, but these are not simple issues.”

In addition, Totenberg is weighing whether Georgia election officials intentionally destroyed evidence. Lawyers for election integrity advocates alleged in a court filing last week that election officials erased Kennesaw State University servers after a security hole exposed voters' information. The Secretary of State's Office has denied the allegations.

Totenberg said the decision by the General Assembly this year to purchase a replacement voting system showed the state was willing to make improvements. She had written in an order last fall that officials "had buried their heads in the sand" about vulnerabilities with the state's direct-recording electronic voting machines.

“They obviously knew they can’t stick with the DRE,” Totenberg said Friday. “It is a system that was allowed to grow way too old and archaic.”

Attorneys for the plaintiffs argued that legislators fell far short of addressing Totenberg’s concerns.

Witnesses listed a variety of ways Georgia’s election system remains compromised:

  • Malware could alter elections on a statewide scale if Georgia's elections system were penetrated at the Secretary of State's Office.
  • Websites of the Secretary of State's Office were penetrated by a cybersecurity company, which obtained administrator rights and system configurations. The office, which hired the company to identify risks, implemented protections to address vulnerabilities, according to testimony from state election officials.
  • Contractors for the state's elections company, Election Systems & Software, create and code Georgia's electronic ballots from their homes. The Secretary of State's Office then loads those ballots into election computers and distributes them across the state.

“The vulnerabilities go way beyond what we thought before,” said David Cross, an attorney for a group of voters who are plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “Their defense is to keep saying, ‘There’s no evidence of a hack.’ They just haven’t looked.”

Four county election administrators said in court they remain confident in Georgia’s 27,000 electronic voting machines.

“The DREs worked extremely well,” Chatham County Elections Supervisor Russell Bridges said. “We’ve never lost any votes.”

While election administrators said they could make a quick switch to paper ballots if Totenberg ordered them to, it would be difficult.

Counties would need to find money from their local governments to buy optical scanning machines and paper ballots. They’d have to scramble to go through government procurement processes in time. They’d have to train poll workers and educate voters.

But the plaintiffs said they’ve proved that voters face an unreasonable burden on their constitutional right to vote. Election results could be altered, and no one would ever know because there’s no paper ballot record.

The state's election system could become contaminated by malware through USB drives that election officials move from internet-connected computers to disconnected election servers, computing experts said in court. Security precautions, such as reformatting USB drives to remove potentially dangerous files, wouldn't necessarily remove sophisticated malware.

Even after Georgia installs its new voting system, the plaintiffs will allege that it remains unsafe because it still puts touchscreen computers between voters and their ballots. But attorneys for the Secretary of State’s Office said audits of paper ballots will ensure that the voting system is producing accurate results.

Totenberg didn’t say when she will make a ruling in the case.

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