Ga. Voting Tech Panel Goes Against Cybersecurity Expert, Urges Ballot-Marking Devices

A Georgia panel, formed by former Secretary of State Brian Kemp, is urging the state to begin using a voting system with a paper trail by 2020.
A Georgia panel, formed by former Secretary of State Brian Kemp, is urging the state to begin using a voting system with a paper trail by 2020.
Credit Johnny Kauffman / WABE

Georgia voters should use some kind of device — like a touchscreen computer — to mark paper ballots when they go to the polls in 2020, according to recommendations by a state panel tasked with reviewing how Georgia’s 16-year-old voting machines should be replaced.

The recommendations went against the suggestion of the lone cybersecurity expert on the Secure, Accessible, and Fair Elections Commission, established last year by Gov.-elect Brian Kemp. At the time, he was secretary of state, Georgia’s top election official.

At the meeting, commission member Wenke Lee, director of the Georgia Tech Information Security Center, said the state should switch to a system where voters mark their choices with a pen or pencil, the votes are counted using a scanner, and the paper ballots are then locked away in case they need to be reviewed later.

Members of the public at the commission’s meetings over the last year who have spoken during hourslong public comment sessions almost unanimously voiced support for this kind of hand-marked paper ballots.

But many local election officials in Georgia told the commission they worried a hand-marked paper ballot system will lead to questions about voter intent.

“I hope you will make a decision that will be conducive for not just the voters — more so for them — but as well for us, the election officials who actually conduct the elections,” said Charlotte Sosebee, director of elections and voter registration in Athens-Clarke County.

“You’ll be surprised by some of the ballots I see that are not counted,” Sosebee said.

Lee, however, points out that new technology, specifically the scanners counting hand-marked paper ballots, would address the concerns of local election officials by flagging when voter intent is not clear.

“Technology has gone through multiple generations,” he said. “It seems to me that some of our folks are stuck with the old times.”

In the end, the majority of the commission voted to recommend a system where voters primarily use some kind of ballot-marking device that then prints a paper ballot or receipt they can review.

The commission’s recommendations are meant to guide state lawmakers when they convene next week.

The commission agrees Georgia needs to switch to a paper-ballot voting system. The current system has no paper trail, and cybersecurity experts say that makes it vulnerable to hacks.

Lee, and two Democratic lawmakers on the commission, ultimately voted against the final recommendations, while the Republicans on the commission voted in support.

“When you have a hand-marked paper ballot, there’s no real opportunity to game the system, and I think that’s a very important point, and it was made, and I think we should have stuck with that,” said James Beverly, a Democratic state representative from Macon. He’s the minority caucus chairman.

In the past, Republican leaders in the Legislature have suggested any changes to laws addressing Georgia’s voting system must have bipartisan support.

It wasn’t clear how staunch Democrats are in their opposition to a system that doesn’t primarily use hand-marked paper ballots.

Beverly said the Democratic caucus would not support legislation if it requires ballot-marking devices, but he also said there was possibility for negotiation with Republicans on the issue.

Incoming Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger will play a role in selecting Georgia’s new voting system after the Legislature’s upcoming session. But in a statement after the commission meeting, he said nothing about his preference for how the new system should look.

The recommendation by the commission, said Raffensperger, “reflects hours of open discourse and robust discussion by a wide variety of stakeholders. I am thankful for the bipartisan efforts of this commission.”