Under half of Georgia voters checked their paper ballots, study shows

Study examined voter behavior on ballot-marking devices
Cobb County resident Darlene Hines, 63, adjusts her foggy glasses as she prepares to cast her ballot  during early voting at the Cobb County Elections and Voter Registration Office in Marietta on Dec. 14.  (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@

Cobb County resident Darlene Hines, 63, adjusts her foggy glasses as she prepares to cast her ballot during early voting at the Cobb County Elections and Voter Registration Office in Marietta on Dec. 14. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Georgia added paper ballots to in-person voting last year. Less than half of voters checked them for accuracy.

That’s according to a study commissioned by the secretary of state’s office, which found that 49% of Election Day voters spent at least one second looking at their printed-out paper ballots, a feature of Georgia’s $133 million voting system.

In the previous 18 years, votes in Georgia were stored on memory cards, with no paper ballots for recounts or audits.

The findings show both the value and limits of voting touchscreens, called ballot-marking devices, which are connected to printers to create paper ballots. While paper ballots can help voters detect errors and the possibility of tampering, many Georgians didn’t bother looking at them.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained the study by requesting it through the Georgia Open Records Act.

“The more voters checking their ballots, the better. It would be good if that percentage kept going up,” said Trey Hood, a University of Georgia political science professor who co-wrote the study. “Half of any group is a large percentage, but it also shows you that there’s a whole other half who aren’t checking their ballots.”

Voters cast their ballots at the Gwinnett County Department of Water Resources in Lawrenceville on Nov. 3. A study found that 49% of Georgia voters who cast ballots that day in the presidential election took time to review their printed ballots to check for errors. (Casey Sykes for The Atlanta-Journal Constitution)

Credit: Casey Sykes

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Credit: Casey Sykes

Critics of computer-printed ballots say the study exposes flaws in Georgia’s voting system. If a hacker infiltrated voting systems, many voters wouldn’t notice that their ballots were incorrect, and it wouldn’t take many altered votes to swing a close election.

Some election integrity advocates prefer paper ballots filled out by hand rather than by machine. They say hand-marked paper ballots, such as absentee ballots, are verified when voters manually fill in ovals, without having to double-check their choices.

A much higher rate of computer-printed ballot verification would be needed to protect elections from interference, said Richard DeMillo, chairman of the School of Cybersecurity and Privacy at Georgia Tech.

“An adversary is going to be able to pick a number of ballots to modify, knowing unexamined ballots are going into the ballot box,” said Demillo, who co-wrote a 2018 study that found 53% of voters in Tennessee elections reviewed their paper ballots but often failed to find errors. “If it is hacked, would you ever know?”

Voting machines aren’t connected to the internet, but they could potentially be infected through a USB drive or software, DeMillo said.

Printed-out ballots encode votes in bar codes that can be read by optical scanning machines, alongside text that lists voters’ choices for verification.

There were no reports of incorrectly printed ballots or signs of fraudulent votes recorded in Georgia’s elections last year. Several counties initially made vote-counting errors before correcting them in recounts.

Three ballot counts showed that Democrat Joe Biden defeated Republican Donald Trump by fewer than 12,000 votes in Georgia, and judges have rejected lawsuits challenging the results.

The Georgia study is the largest known examination of voter behavior on ballot-marking devices, with over 4,000 voters observed in 39 precincts. Observers took note of how long voters looked at their printed ballots or whether they checked their ballots at all.

“This research shows voters do indeed review their ballots for accuracy before casting them, demonstrating once and for all that Georgia’s system of touchscreen ballot printing is both accurate and easy for voters to use,” Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said. “Millions of voters checking the accuracy of their ballots is proof the votes that were counted were for the candidates the voters intended.”

The secretary of state’s office researched ballot-marking devices to find out how many voters verified printed paper ballots after many hadn’t used them since 2002.

The Georgia General Assembly passed a bill in 2019 requiring ballot-marking devices for all in-person voters, and the secretary of state’s office awarded the contract for new voting equipment to Dominion Voting Systems later that year.

The study was part of a $183,000 contract with the Center for Election Innovation & Research, with funding coming from the federal Help America Vote Act, which distributes election grant money to states. The contract paid for both the study and consulting on COVID-19 response, cybersecurity and a bipartisan election improvement task force. The specific amount spent on the study wasn’t immediately available.

“The fact that we had paper ballots that were verified by a significant percentage of voters was a huge advantage for Georgia,” said David Becker, executive director for the Center for Election Innovation & Research. “I shudder to think, given the disinformation that we were seeing post-election, had we not had the paper ballots that we could go back to and count.”

A statewide audit of all 5 million paper ballots recounted presidential results by hand based on the printed text, and then they were tallied again in a machine recount requested by Trump.

Becker said hand-marked paper ballots aren’t necessarily more verified by voters than computer-printed ballots. Voters make mistakes on hand-marked ballots, such as picking too many candidates or filling in the wrong oval, issues prevented by touchscreens, he said.

About 21% of voters nationwide live in jurisdictions that use ballot-marking devices, and 70% rely on hand-marked paper ballots, according to Verified Voting, an organization that focuses on election technology. Nearly 10% cast ballots using electronic voting systems similar to Georgia’s previous equipment, which didn’t have a paper trail.

Voter behavior on Election Day 2020

20%: Didn’t check their paper ballots at all

31%: Looked at ballots for less than one second

30%: Examined ballots for one to five seconds

19%: Reviewed ballots for more than five seconds

Source: Georgia Voter Verification Study

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