Judge orders emergency paper backups of voter records in Georgia

Stephanie Herrera crouches in line as she and other voters lined up in the rain to vote at Garden Hills Elementary School in Buckhead during the June 6 primary. Malfunctioning Poll Pads, used for checking in voters, contributed to the hours-long delays some voters faced that day. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

A federal judge on Monday required paper backups of voter registration and absentee voting information at every Georgia polling place, a safeguard to allow voters to continue casting ballots if computers fail on Election Day.

U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg ordered election officials to prepare paper copies of records showing who is registered to vote and whether they’ve already voted before Nov. 3, either by absentee ballot or during in-person early voting.

The ruling could help prevent long lines if poll workers struggle with the state’s new voter check-in tablets, called Poll Pads, as they did during the state’s June 9 primary, Totenberg wrote. Some voters waited for hours because of a combination of high turnout, poll closures, social distancing, absentee ballot problems and difficulties operating voting equipment.

“It is not too late for defendants to take these reasonable concrete measures to mitigate the real potential harms that would otherwise likely transpire at precinct polling locations grappling with the boiling brew created by the combination of new voting equipment issues and old voter data system deficiencies,” Totenberg wrote.

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State election officials opposed more paper backups, saying printouts of thousands of pages of documents would strain county poll workers trying to run the biggest election in state history during the coronavirus health crisis. Turnout is expected to reach 5 million voters.

“Changing long-standing processes right before an election almost always has unintended consequences,” Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said. “We will file a notice of appeal immediately to protect the security of the vote and to protect Georgia elections from activists on disinformation campaigns.”

Totenberg’s 67-page ruling recounts problems that voters have faced in elections since 2018.

Some voters showed up at the polls but weren’t listed as registered on check-in computers. Others found wrong addresses displayed or were told they had to go to another polling place to vote. Poll workers at times didn’t offer provisional ballots as they should have to voters whose registration information was in doubt.

In addition, computer voter registration systems showed that some voters had already cast their ballots when they hadn’t.

Poll Pads, part of the state's new voting system, have caused election problems since they were first used in November. Some polling places opened late because workers couldn’t get Poll Pads working. At other times, poll workers couldn’t get the Poll Pads to program voter access cards that activate touchscreens. (Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Georgia purchased new voting equipment for this year’s elections, but check-in tablets called Poll Pads have caused problems in elections since November, culminating in this summer’s primary, Totenberg wrote.

Some polling places opened late because workers couldn’t get Poll Pads working. Poll workers at times couldn’t get Poll Pads to program voter access cards that activate touchscreens. Voters reported receiving the wrong ballots because polling places didn’t have accurate lists of who had already voted.

“The judge’s order will go a long way to prevent the long lines that crippled the June primary by giving local county election officials something to use if the electronic Poll Pads, which check in voters, continue to fail, as they have in every recent election,” said Bruce Brown, an attorney for the Coalition for Good Governance, an election security organization. “Like a lot of backup systems, the hope is that they’ll never be used.”

While paper voter registration lists were already required at precincts before Totenberg’s ruling, they didn’t contain records of who had already voted in the election. That information is accessible on Poll Pads, but if they’re not functioning, that could severely slow the voting process. Poll workers would have to issue provisional ballots to voters if their registration information can’t be verified.

A paper list showing who has voted or requested an absentee ballot would allow poll workers to continue allowing eligible voters to move through lines, according to Totenberg’s ruling. Voters who never requested an absentee ballot would be able to vote immediately; others could cancel their absentee ballots and then vote.

“Voters waited for hours because of delays and malfunctions with the operation of the Poll Pads. In many instances of such bottlenecks created by operational problems with the Poll Pads, poll workers did not use paper pollbooks as a backup to aid voter check-in and facilitate voting,” Totenberg wrote.

She ordered the secretary of state’s office to create voter registration lists and absentee voting records after in-person early voting ends the Friday before Election Day. Then county election offices will be required to print out those lists and provide them at each precinct.

Totenberg’s ruling is part of an ongoing lawsuit by plaintiffs whose ultimate goal is to replace voting touchscreens with paper ballots filled out by hand. She didn’t rule Monday on that issue, but last year she denied a similar effort because of the disruption it would cause so close to Election Day.

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