News, Politics

Voting Machine Panel Agrees Ga. Needs Paper Ballots By 2020, Disagrees On How To Mark Them

A state commission tasked with reviewing how Georgia should switch to new voting machines agreed the new system needs to be in place by 2020, and rely on paper ballots. But the commission appears divided on how ballots should be filled out in the new system.
A state commission tasked with reviewing how Georgia should switch to new voting machines agreed the new system needs to be in place by 2020, and rely on paper ballots. But the commission appears divided on how ballots should be filled out in the new system.
Credit Johnny Kauffman / WABE
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There was mostly cordial agreement Wednesday in the Macon office of Georgia’s Secretary of State about how the state’s elections should change.

Democrats, Republicans, local election officials and one cybersecurity expert on a panel tasked with reviewing Georgia’s options for new voting machines were united. The state’s system should include a paper trail voters can check for themselves, it should be auditable, voter education should be a focus as the new machines are rolled out, and the new system should be in place before the 2020 presidential elections.

“In the middle of a very contentious election year,” Republican state Sen. Brian Strickland said, “I love that we are a nonpartisan group that all have the exact same goal in mind, and that’s to make sure that we have a safe, secure and trustworthy election process where every person’s vote is counted.”

Democratic state Sen. Lester Jackson appeared to agree.

“This process has been helpful,” Jackson, of Savannah, said. “I think the commission has been fair.”

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

Cybersecurity experts warn the machines can leave elections vulnerable to hacking. In a worst-case scenario, hackers could manipulate vote totals without detection.

A lawyer with the Secretary of State’s office warned the commission that if Georgia doesn’t switch to a paper-based system by 2020, federal courts will likely order it to do so.

The commission, called the Secure, Accessible and Fair Elections (SAFE) Commission, was created by Republican Gov.-elect Brian Kemp in April 2018, when he was still serving as secretary of state.

Kemp remained secretary of state, Georgia’s top election official, as he ran against Democrat Stacey Abrams, despite calls for him to step down. He and his office have insisted the current electronic-only system is secure.

Democratic state Sen. Jackson said he was disappointed that the Republican-controlled Legislature and Kemp had not acted sooner to try and replace Georgia’s 16-year-old voting machines.

“I frankly think we are really running behind the clock right now,” Jackson said, “But I think we need something in place by the 2020 election.”

A Republican-led committee in the state House of Representatives held hearings last year on Georgia’s voting machines. The Legislature took up the issue during the 2018 legislative session at the beginning of the year but failed to pass any bills that would have moved Georgia toward a new system.

Hand Marked Vs. Machine Marked 

In its meeting Wednesday, the SAFE Commission appeared divided on whether Georgia’s new voting system should use paper ballots that voters fill out by hand or machines that mark ballots for voters to reflect their choices.

With ballot-marking devices, the voters could still review a paper ballot created by the machine before casting it.

Incoming Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger during his campaign said he would prefer a system that uses ballot-marking devices, but he walked that back slightly in remarks to the commission Wednesday.

“I have said that we need the most secure, updated voting technology with a verifiable paper-audit trail, and a system that moves voters faster through the line,” said Raffensperger. “Aside from that, I have no predetermined outcome on the system or the vendor for our next generation of voting machines.”

Members of the commission raised a number of questions about a hand-marked paper ballot system, including accessibility for people with disabilities, and voter education.

Sheila Ross, a “voter-at-large” appointed to the committee, said it should consider some people might decide not to vote, or have difficulty voting, if the state picks a paper system.

“Children today will be using the system that we are deciding on,” Ross said. “Who uses paper? They take all their tests on computers. I don’t know a toddler who doesn’t know how to use an iPad or an iPhone.”

Wenke Lee, co-executive director of Georgia Tech’s Institute for Information Security and Privacy, is the commission’s most vocal proponent of hand-marked ballots.

In an October memo to the other commission members, Lee wrote that ballot-marking devices would be “a much less desirable approach” for Georgia’s next voting system, compared to hand-marked paper ballots.

Lee says voters may not check the paper ballot marked by a machine to ensure it reflects their choices, but they would have no choice if hand marking a ballot.

And at the commission meeting Wednesday, he stressed that if the state spends tens of millions of dollars on a system with flaws, it could have long-term consequences.

“Then we’re screwed for the next 10 years,” Lee said.

Former Democratic Secretary of State Cathy Cox, at the commission meeting in Macon, warned that partisanship should not infect the state’s choice of a new voting system.

“If the choice is not made on a bipartisan basis, you obviously risk losing voter confidence and voter trust in the whole electoral process,” Cox said. “And we don’t need to go any further there than we are today based on a lot of the issues and challenges that came out of the 2018 election.”