Judge says Georgia elections at risk but rules against paper ballots

Voters waited in long lines at Henry W. Grady High School in Atlanta during the presidential election in 2016. JOHN SPINK /JSPINK@AJC.COM

Voters waited in long lines at Henry W. Grady High School in Atlanta during the presidential election in 2016. JOHN SPINK /JSPINK@AJC.COM

Georgia voters will continue to use touchscreens to cast their ballots this fall, perhaps for the last time.

A federal judge found a "concrete risk" that Georgia's electronic voting system is vulnerable to tampering, but she ruled against a quick switch to paper ballots less than four weeks before early voting begins for November's election.

U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg late Monday denied a motion from election integrity advocates who asked her to force the state's 6.8 million registered voters to use hand-marked paper ballots instead of direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting machines.

Totenberg scolded state election officials who “had buried their heads in the sand” by failing to safeguard Georgia’s voting system. She allowed the state to continue using electronic voting machines because a rushed transition to paper ballots could frustrate voters with “bureaucratic confusion and long lines.”

Her decision ensures that Georgia’s 27,000 touchscreen machines will remain in place for the election for governor between Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who is responsible for overseeing elections. In-person early voting starts Oct. 15, and Election Day is Nov. 6.

“The state defendants have also stood by for far too long, given the mounting tide of evidence of the inadequacy and security risks of Georgia’s DRE voting system and software,” Totenberg wrote in her 46-page order. “The court is gravely concerned about the state’s pace in responding to the serious vulnerabilities of its voting system.”

U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg listens Wednesday as Alex Halderman, a University of Michigan computer science professor, demonstrates how an electronic voting machine like those used in Georgia could be hacked. Totenberg is overseeing a lawsuit that asks her to invalidate Georgia’s 27,000 touchscreen voting machines and replace them with paper ballots in time for the general election Nov. 6, 2018. RICHARD MILLER / CONTRIBUTED

icon to expand image

Kemp said Georgia’s electronic voting machines are safe, and state and

local governments have been preparing for the election for months.

“With this ruling behind us, we will continue our preparations for a secure, orderly election,” Kemp said. “Our state needs a verifiable paper trail, but we cannot make such a dramatic change this election cycle.”

Georgia is one of five states that relies entirely on electronic voting machines without a verifiable paper backup.

Though Georgia's touchscreen voting machines have been in place since 2002, Russian interference in U.S. elections has increased worries about the accuracy and integrity of voting.

There's no evidence that Georgia's voting machines have been hacked during an election, but tech experts say malware could be written to change results without leaving a trace. Without a paper ballot backup, there's no way to tell whether an election is altered and no way to correct potential errors.

"It's the state's duty to deliver accurate elections. We need clear evidence that the election is legitimate," said Donna Price, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit and the director of Georgians for Verified Voting. "The decision is disappointing given the court's acknowledgement of extraordinary vulnerabilities in the current system."

U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg

icon to expand image

The judge’s order cites examples of repeated problems where voting information wasn’t protected by the government.

A state elections computer at Kennesaw State University displayed voter information on the internet for months before it was taken down; the computer was erased while officials were investigating; and electronic voting machines rely on outdated software.

Election officials said in court last week that the government would have struggled to find money to buy enough paper ballots, count them in a timely manner and ensure accuracy.

"The judge's decision turns on a single conclusion that it was just too late for this change," said David Cross, an attorney for some of the plaintiffs. "Either the state is going to have to adopt some sort of measures that address these vulnerabilities and adopt a voting system that's secure and verifiable for the 2020 election, or the court is going to see to it that it happens."

Georgia was the first state in the country to switch to all-electronic voting devices 16 years ago. At the time, the technology was seen as a way to avoid the kind of problems seen in Florida during the 2000 presidential election, when ballots with hanging chads created uncertainty about vote counts.

Today, most voters in the United States cast their ballots on a system that includes a paper record that can be checked for accuracy.

One of the plaintiffs, Marilyn Marks of the Coalition for Good Governance, said government officials have failed to respond to repeated warnings about electronic voting systems.

“The defendants failed to make any efforts to prepare for secure November elections,” Marks said. “Although the concerns of a transition to paper ballots are exaggerated, the defendants can create a self-fulfilling prophecy of Election Day chaos and voter disenfranchisement.”

Abrams said Tuesday that if she defeats Kemp in the election, she’ll ensure elections are safe, secure and accessible.

“Georgians are hungry for leaders who will make sure every voice can count at the polls,” Abrams said.

No matter who wins, Georgia’s elected officials are already considering a transition to a paper-based voting system in time for the 2020 presidential election.

Kemp formed a commission to review options for the state's next voting system, which could use hand-marked paper ballots or touchscreens to fill in and print paper ballots. The General Assembly plans to consider bills next year to choose and purchase a replacement voting system, which could cost anywhere from $20 million to well over $100 million.

In the meantime, the lawsuit seeking to invalidate Georgia’s electronic voting machines will continue to move through the courts. Totenberg said she wants to ensure the state government takes steps to ensure voters’ confidence in the integrity of elections.

“The 2020 elections are around the corner,” Totenberg wrote. “If a new balloting system is to be launched in Georgia in an effective manner, it should address democracy’s critical need for transparent, fair, accurate and verifiable election processes that guarantee each citizens’ fundamental right to cast an accountable vote.”

— Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.


Voting controversy: Election integrity advocates say Georgia's electronic voting machines are vulnerable to hacking and should be replaced with paper ballots.

What happened: U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg rejected an immediate switch to paper ballots but said Georgia government officials should improve election security.

What's next: After November's election, Georgia legislators will consider buying a statewide voting system that includes a paper backup.