Ballot secrecy lawsuit filed over new Georgia voting system

Andrea Settles practices completing a ballot on one of Fulton County’s new voting machines during a mock election held at the Sandy Springs Library on Feb. 18.

Andrea Settles practices completing a ballot on one of Fulton County’s new voting machines during a mock election held at the Sandy Springs Library on Feb. 18.

A lawsuit filed Monday alleges that Georgia’s new voting computers fail to protect voters’ right to a secret ballot, exposing their choices on brightly lit screens.

The lawsuit asks a Sumter County judge to require paper ballots filled out by hand instead of the 21.5-inch touchscreens during next week’s runoff election for a state Senate seat.

Georgia election officials said the lawsuit is frivolous and that concerns about voter privacy can be addressed by repositioning touchscreens so they face walls instead of voters.

The complaint opens a new front in the ongoing legal fight over Georgia's $104 million voting system, which combines touchscreens, printers and ballot scanners. Plaintiffs in the lawsuit say only hand-marked paper ballots can protect election security and voter secrecy.

“Having a nonsecret ballot election is essentially a form of voter intimidation and voter coercion,” said Marilyn Marks, the executive director for the Coalition for Good Governance, an election advocacy organization. “With the new equipment the secretary of state has purchased, they’re essentially requiring voters to vote on a public display.”

The lawsuit says that highlighted selections of candidates displayed on touchscreens are visible from 30 feet away. Polling places will have blue cardboard or plastic barriers around the touchscreens, but the lawsuit contends they’re inadequate.

A memo from the Georgia secretary of state's office advises county election officials to position touchscreens so they're facing toward walls instead of toward voters waiting in line.

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The secretary of state’s office earlier this month issued guidance to counties about how to arrange precincts so that touchscreens are turned away from voters waiting in line. In addition, a state elections rule requires touchscreens to be set up in a manner that assures privacy.

Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs said the Colorado-based Coalition for Good Governance, which is also suing over Georgia’s voting system in federal court, is harming the state’s efforts to implement its statewide voting system in time for the March 24 presidential primary.

“This is a silly and desperate attempt by an out-of-state organization to interfere with Georgia elections,” Fuchs said. “This organization’s policy stance failed at the ballot box, failed in the General Assembly and has failed in the courts.”

All in-person voters in Georgia are scheduled to use the touchscreen-and-printer system when early voting for the presidential primary begins March 2.

Voters will make their selections on touchscreens, which are connected to printers that will create paper ballots. Then voters will take an extra step that didn’t exist with the state’s previous electronic voting machines: They’ll be asked to review their ballots for accuracy before inserting them into optical scanning machines for tabulation.

Cathy Watkins of Cartersville inserts her printed-out ballot into a scanner Thursday after voting on Georgia’s new voting machines. Voters in six counties across the state, including Bartow County and its city of Cartersville, are testing the new voting system in this fall’s elections. Voters across Georgia will use the machines in the March 24 presidential primary. MARK NIESSE / MARK.NIESSE@AJC.COM

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The lawsuit contends that no amount of repositioning or privacy screens can shield voters’ choices from prying eyes.

The Georgia Constitution requires that “elections by the people shall be by secret ballot.” State laws call for hand-marked paper ballots when in emergency situations, when using touchscreens becomes “impossible or impracticable.”

The lawsuit says election officials’ efforts to reposition voting screens isn’t a viable option. State law requires poll workers to be able to monitor election voting equipment, according to the lawsuit.

But state election officials have said moving touchscreens is a simple solution that will protect voter privacy and that poll workers can still monitor touchscreens if they’re turned around.

The lawsuit was brought in Sumter County, the largest of nine South Georgia counties where early voting for a state Senate runoff began Monday. Two Republicans are competing to fill the seat previously held by state Sen. Greg Kirk, a Republican from Americus who died in December after battling bile duct cancer.

The Georgia secretary of state’s office isn’t named as a defendant in the case, but Marks said she hopes the lawsuit will lead county election boards across the state to abandon the voting system.

The federal lawsuit over Georgia’s voting equipment is still pending.

U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg ruled in August that the state must be prepared to use hand-marked paper ballots if the new voting system isn't ready, but state election officials completed delivery of voting equipment for the presidential primary on Feb. 14.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has said the state met deadlines and election officials are prepared for next month's election.