Hand-Marked Ballots ‘Best Approach’ For New Voting Machines, Expert On Ga. Panel Says

In Ridgeland, Mississippi, voters fill out their paper ballots in privacy voting booths Nov. 6. A commission has been formed to recommend replacements for Georgia’s electronic-only voting machines, which do not leave a paper trail that can be audited after an election.

Rogelio V. Solis / Associated Press

It would be a “much less desirable approach” for Georgia’s next voting system to feature computers that mark paper ballots for voters based on their selections, according to the lone cybersecurity expert on a panel tasked with making recommendations for replacements to the state’s electronic-only machines.

The co-executive director of Georgia Tech’s Institute for Information Security and Privacy, Wenke Lee, made his recommendation in a memo sent to the Secure, Accessible and Fair Elections (SAFE) Commission in October, and it was obtained by WABE this week.

“The best approach,” Lee wrote, “is to require the voters to hand mark paper ballots that are scanned and tallied by cyber system but also dropped into a safe box. This is because marking each vote captures and verifies the voter’s intention in a single act.”

The commission was set up by now Republican Gov.-elect Brian Kemp when he was secretary of state, Georgia’s top election official.

Republican state Rep. Barry Fleming and interim Secretary of State Robyn Crittenden are the commission co-chairs. The panel also includes Democratic lawmakers, local election officials, voters and lawyers from the state’s major political parties.

The commission is set to meet Wednesday in Macon.

Georgia rolled out its current voting machines in 2002 and is now one of 14 states using these electronic voting machines that do not leave a paper trail that can be audited after an election.

Cybersecurity experts along with the Senate Intelligence Committee say the machines can leave elections vulnerable to hacking. In a worst-case scenario, hackers could manipulate vote totals without detection.

There appears to be consensus among Republican and Democratic lawmakers in Georgia that the state needs to have a new paper-based system ahead of the 2020 presidential elections. But there’s no consensus on the details of the system.

In early 2018, the Republican-controlled state Legislature failed to make the switch in law or appropriate the necessary money for new machines. But the Legislature is set to take up the issue again during its 40-day session beginning in January.

Georgia’s next secretary of state, Republican Brad Raffensperger, said during his campaign that he favors a voting system that includes a ballot-marking device: a computer or machine that voters would use to mark a paper ballot.

“I would rather have that ballot be mechanically marked,” said Raffensperger on WABE’s “Closer Look.”

“I don’t think that we can do our elections on the cheap,” he said. “And if it costs a little bit more for something that’s better – more secure — then I think that we need to give people that confidence to do that.”

In his memo, Lee called hand-marked paper ballot voting, the “consensus approach among the cybersecurity research community.”

In jurisdictions around the country that use paper ballots, ballot-marking devices are often important to complying with federal law requiring voting be accessible to people with disabilities.

But advocates for paper ballots often argue using ballot-marking devices exclusively increases costs and can increase voter error.

“With hand-marked paper ballots,” Lee wrote in his memo, “a voter both casts and verifies (that is, the voter verifies as s/he marks and cannot cast without verifying). However, with ballot marking devices, the voter can easily skip the verification step.”

In his memo, Lee also recommended the state lease new voting machines instead of purchasing them like it has in the past.

“The State of Georgia should lease a new system every few years,” Lee wrote, “to ensure its voting system is built on top of the latest generation of security technologies via the latest hardware and operating systems.”