Threats to Georgia elections loom despite new paper ballot voting

Georgia was the first state in the nation to move to electronic voting machines 17 years ago, and it will be one of the last to adopt paper ballots that voters can check before they’re cast.

The selection this week of a $107 million electronic voting system that combines familiar touchscreen machines with paper ballots was a big step for a state that continues to face criticism and legal challenges over its handling of the 2018 election. But critics say the system will still be vulnerable to hacking, and getting the machines ready in time for the statewide presidential primary in March won't be easy.

When the new system is installed, Georgia will be the first state in the nation to switch entirely to this kind of hybrid paper-and-tech way of conducting elections. Dominion Voting Systems will replace the state’s old Diebold electronic voting machines, which lack a paper trail for audits and recounts.

Georgia awards contract for new election system

The new touchscreens will be attached to printers that spit out ballots. Voters can then review their choices before inserting their paper ballots into scanning machines that will record their choices.

Most everyone — from President Donald Trump to voting rights activists — supports the addition of paper ballots as a safeguard against tampering and fraud.

But the switch from Georgia’s unverifiable elections is tempered by a new set of hurdles.

Any computerized system is vulnerable to malware and hacking, a fact made clear by high-profile hacking of Capital One and Equifax, which compromised personal information of millions of people. Online attacks have also hit governments such as the city of Atlanta and a Georgia courts agency, whose computers were brought offline when they became infected with programs that demanded a ransom payment.

Election officials will have to be on guard against malware, viruses, stolen passwords and Russian interference across tens of thousands of new voting computers. A Russian agent visited websites of two Georgia counties in 2016 but didn't gain access to election systems, officials said. Elsewhere in the country, Russian hackers targeted voting systems in Florida and Illinois, according to reports from the U.S. House Intelligence Committee.

Georgia election officials will rush to install 30,000 voting machines, 30,000 printers, 3,500 scanners and 8,000 electronic voter registration terminals in time for the March 24 presidential preference primary. The national spotlight will be on Georgia, the only state in the nation with a presidential primary scheduled for that day.

The new voting system will soon be challenged in federal court by voters seeking paper ballots filled out with a pen in elections, arguing that touchscreens and printers could still produce inaccurate results.

Critics of Georgia's new voting system say it fails to protect elections. They're skeptical of Georgia's elections oversight, especially after the close results of November's election for governor between Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp, who oversaw his own election as secretary of state at the time.

“We’re paying a premium, millions of dollars, and every cybersecurity person says it can still be hacked,” said Liz Throop, an Atlanta voter who wanted Georgia to rely on paper ballots filled out with a pen.

Some voters said they lack confidence in the Secretary of State’s Office to ensure election systems are secure following several lapses in recent years.

Voter registration information was left exposed on a Kennesaw State University server in 2016. The Secretary of State's Office inadvertently disclosed Social Security numbers and other private information of registered voters to 12 organizations in 2015. And court testimony last week revealed that the office outsourced ballot formatting to contractors who did the work from their homes.

Those errors and risks created security holes that hackers could exploit to gain access to voting systems, even on its new voting equipment, said Susan Greenhalgh of the National Election Defense Coalition, an advocacy group.

“It’s disquieting to see this disregard shown to computer security experts who have been proven right in the very recent past,” Greenhalgh said. “It’s ‘Groundhog Day’ all over again.”

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger during an interview as he talks about Georgia’s new voting system on June 30. The state awarded a $107 million contract to Dominion Voting for new machines. Bob Andres /

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Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said voting will remain safe in Georgia. There's no evidence that Georgia's voting machines have been hacked or tampered with, but tech experts say malware could have reached election equipment without being detected.

Georgia's voting machines aren't connected to the internet, but cybersecurity experts say malware could spread through USB drives that transfer data from election computers that are online.

The state’s new voting equipment will be protected by anti-malware programs, upgraded operating systems, firewalls and retrained election workers, Raffensperger said. Touchscreens will run on an Android operating system, voter registration check-ins will work on Apple iPads, optical scanners will use Linux, and election management servers will rely on Windows 10.

“It’s not going to be hacked. It hasn’t been hacked,” Raffensperger said. “There’s no forgiveness if it happens. We want to make sure that people’s confidential information stays confidential.”

With Georgia’s current voting system, there’s no way to guarantee that electronic ballots accurately reflect the choices of voters because there’s no paper backup to verify results.

Recounts are meaningless on the direct-recording electronic voting machines because they simply reproduce the same numbers they originally generated.

But paper ballots alone won’t protect the sanctity of elections on the new touchscreens, called ballot-marking devices.

The new election system depends on voters to verify the printed text of their choices on their ballots, a step that many voters might not take. The State Election Board hasn't yet created regulations for how recounts and audits will be conducted. And paper ballots embed selections in bar codes that are only readable by scanning machines, leaving Georgians uncertain whether the bar codes match their votes.

A robust paper ballot review and auditing process will be essential, said Edgardo Cortés, an election security adviser for the Brennan Center for Justice, a policy institute at New York University.

“A lot of the concerns will revolve around whether or not the equipment is tabulating properly and not giving voters a false sense of security,” said Cortés, a former Virginia elections commissioner.

Georgia first converted to electronic voting in 2002 following the controversial presidential election two years earlier between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore, when paper punch-card ballots in Florida led to questions about the accuracy of results before the U.S. Supreme Court stopped the recount. In Georgia, about 3.5% of the state's paper ballots failed to register a vote for president in 2000 — a higher rate than Florida's average of 2.9%, according to the state's 21st Century Voting Commission report from 2001.

The election this past November highlighted how outdated Georgia’s machines, originally purchased from Diebold Election Systems for $54 million, had become.

Some voters complained that the machines recorded their votes incorrectly. Vote totals were suspiciously low in the lieutenant governor's race compared with other statewide offices. Some machines stopped working.

Wenke Lee, a Georgia Tech computer science professor who recommended paper ballots filled out by hand, gave the new voting system faint praise, saying “it’s probably better than window dressing.”

"On paper, ballot-marking device printouts are an improvement over the existing system we're using," said Lee, the only cybersecurity expert on a state commission that reviewed voting systems last fall. "The improvement can only be realized if the voters are willing and able to check the printout."

Georgia is left with a new voting system that depends on voters to fact-check their ballots and on election officials to prevent tampering, said Edward Perez of the Open Source Election Technology Institute, which recommends hand-marked paper ballots.

The increase in the number of computers used in Georgia elections — from about 30,000 voting machines to 70,000 touchscreens, printers and scanners — raises the risk, he said.

“Having that many electronic devices, all dependent on a computerized system, increases the surface-attack area,” Perez said. “The more you increase the scale by which the election system is dependent on some form of computing technology, that increases the concern around security.”

Election officials need to ensure they have backup plans in case something goes wrong, said Matt Bernhard, a computer science doctoral student at the University of Michigan who testified about election security risks in federal court during a hearing last month in the lawsuit seeking paper ballots.

“If you infect the ballot-marking devices with ransomware, what are you going to do? You have to be able to rapidly issue paper ballots,” Bernhard said.

A contractor for the Secretary of State’s Office identified 22 risks in 2017, including widespread administrator rights to election information, insufficient firewall protection and weak password practices. Another contractor’s assessment last year found 15 risks.

The secretary of state’s chief information officer, Merritt Beaver, said in court that potential vulnerabilities have been addressed.

In addition, state election officials adopted rules last month that require anti-malware software, intrusion detection systems, daily voter registration system backups and regular cybersecurity assessments.

Worries about the voting machines are more practical at the county level, election administrators said.

Will poll workers understand how to set up the new machines properly? Will ballot printers run out of ink? Will local election costs rise?

“It’s good that we’re adding a new system, and it has what the activists want in that it prints a regular ballot that’s read by a scanner,” Fulton County Elections Director Richard Barron said. “There are a lot of questions, though. I think the voters will like it. I’m not sure the poll workers will like it.”

Georgia election officials and Dominion plan to begin training election workers in August and educating voters about how to use the new machines.

Voters such as Jeanne Dufort, who lives in Madison, said there are too many threats to elections to feel comfortable with electronic voting systems. The addition of a paper ballot is little solace to her when so much could go wrong.

She wants the state to abandon electronic voting and use hand-marked paper ballots. A federal judge is considering a request to immediately switch the state to hand-marked paper ballots this fall – even before the new voting system is put in place next year.

“Taking computers away from being between a voter and their ballot is the only safe option right now,” said Dufort, a plaintiff in a lawsuit alleging votes went missing in last year’s race for lieutenant governor. “You’ve got to take this offline because these guys (state election officials) aren’t prepared to fight the battle.”

Electronic voting timeline

Nov. 5, 2002: Georgia becomes the first state in the nation to switch entirely to electronic voting, using a $54 million system purchased from Diebold Election Systems. The state moved from lever machines, punch cards and paper ballots after problems with vote-counting in the 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore.

Nov. 7, 2017: Election officials test a new kind of electronic voting system during city elections in Conyers. These voting machines use touchscreens but also include a paper ballot printout.

March 30, 2018: A bill that would have replaced Georgia's electronic voting system with the new machines, called ballot-marking devices, fails to pass the General Assembly.

April 13, 2018: Secretary of State Brian Kemp creates a commission to recommend a new statewide voting system.

Sept. 17, 2018: U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg ruled against a motion to immediately switch from electronic voting machines to paper ballots filled out with a pen. Totenberg found that voting machines were vulnerable to tampering and errors, but she declined to remove them from service so soon before Election Day.

Nov. 6, 2018: Voters elect Kemp, a Republican, as governor, defeating Stacey Abrams, a Democrat.

Jan. 10, 2019: Kemp's commission recommends that Georgia buy a statewide voting system with touchscreens and paper ballots.

April 3, 2019: Kemp signs a bill passed by the General Assembly calling for new voting machines before the 2020 presidential preference primary election. Lawmakers appropriated $150 million for the voting system.

April 23, 2019: Election companies submit bids for Georgia's voting contract.

July 29, 2019: Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger announces the award of a $107 million contract to Dominion Voting.

Nov. 5, 2019: The new voting system is scheduled to be tested in up to six local elections.

March 24, 2020: Every in-person voter will use the new voting machines during the presidential preference primary election.

Nov. 3, 2020: Presidential election.

Georgia election changes 

  • Purchased new voting machines and voter registration systems.
  • Absentee ballots can't be rejected because of a signature mismatch or missing birth year and address.
  • Voter registrations can't be canceled until a voter hasn't participated in elections for at least eight years. Previously, registration cancellations began after as little as six years of voter inactivity.
  • Voters will be mailed a notification between 30 and 60 days before their registrations are canceled.
  • Georgians registering to vote will immediately become active voters, curtailing the state's "exact match" policy that put registrations in pending status until inconsistencies were corrected. All Georgia voters must show official photo ID for verification before they can cast a ballot on Election Day.
  • Georgia joined a 26-state organization called the Electronic Registration Information Center to share voter information and cancel registrations of voters who moved out of state or died.
  • Precincts can't be closed or relocated in the 60 days before a general or primary election.
  • Losing candidates can request an automatic recount if their margin of defeat is less than 0.5%. Under previous Georgia law, they were entitled to a recount with a 1% margin or less.
  • Election officials must create security protocols for voter registration information.