Lawmakers begin talks about how to replace Georgia’s aging vote system

A handful of lawmakers began the discussion Friday about what it might take to move Georgia to a new election system, an important but incremental step toward replacing the state's aging voting machines.

The meeting of the state House Science and Technology Committee represents a start. Any decision will likely take a few years and, depending on the type of system officials pick, could cost more than $100 million. Cheaper options are available, but the state’s leaders all need to agree on what they want.

“We all want to have a system that is best in class and does all the things technology can provide for us,” said committee Chairman Ed Setzler, R-Acworth. Beginning that conversation now, he added, means the “committee starts out of session to look at these things and to look at what technological options can serve our state well.”

Georgia's current system, considered state-of-the-art when it was adopted 15 years ago, is now universally acknowledged by experts to be vulnerable to security risks and buggy software. Only a handful of states still use similar electronic systems, which voters know for their digital touch screens. A majority — 41 states — either have or are moving toward voting done entirely on paper or on a hybrid system that incorporates some kind of paper trail.

In Georgia, meanwhile, there’s currently no paper record for most ballots cast in elections. And its partner in running elections statewide, Kennesaw State University’s Center for Election Systems, misconfigured a server that was accessed recently by cybersecurity researchers who found highly sensitive documents — something they said would have also been available to a hacker who knew where to look on the internet.

“The return to voter-marked paper ballots is the current best practice and most widely accepted safe-voting methodology,” Jeremy Epstein, a computer and network systems expert with the National Science Foundation, told the committee.

As for actual hacking that would have altered results, “I have no reason to believe this has happened in any election,” Epstein said. But the fear, he said, was that “if it has happened, someone who is reasonably skilled could do it in an undetectable way.”

Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp and other elections officials have maintained that the current system is secure. There is no evidence it has been compromised. At the urging of advocates critical of the system, Kemp's office has begun a forensic review of the current system. Results are months away, but officials have said they want voters to remain confident in the system for as long as it is still in use.

“It concerns me that something is hackable” said Chris Harvey, Georgia’s elections director. “To date, we have not had any indication that has happened. I take security of the system seriously.”

The state will conduct a pilot program in the use of paper ballots this November for a municipal election in Conyers, using a hybrid system that will tally the results electronically but allow for a paper trail.

Harvey, however, said he did not expect a statewide transition until at least 2020 — assuming his office, lawmakers and the governor’s office could agree relatively quickly about how to move forward. That includes which type of system to use, how much to pay, as well as changes to state laws that currently mandate the all-electronic system Georgia already has.

Advocates critical of the system say that’s too long.

The potential cost of “$100 million is nothing if that’s what it’s going to take to have election integrity and ensure voters their vote is going to count,” said Ronda Fox, a DeKalb County resident who attended the meeting. “Why aren’t we in it with everything we’ve got?”