Federal Court Asked To Scrap Georgia's 27,000 Electronic Voting Machines

Sep 12, 2018
Originally published on September 12, 2018 7:17 am

The security of Georgia's touchscreen electronic voting machines will be under scrutiny in a federal courtroom Wednesday.

A group of voters and election security advocates want a federal district court judge to order the state to not use the machines in this November's election and replace them with paper ballots.

"I will not cast my vote on those machines, as I have no confidence that those machines will accurately record, transmit, and county my vote," said one of the plaintiffs, Donna Curling, in a court filing.

Early voting in the state begins on Oct. 15 and election officials say a switch at this point would mean chaos, and potentially suppress turnout.

Georgia is one of 14 states that use electronic voting machines that do not leave a paper trail that can be audited after an election and is one of five states that exclusively use the machines. 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.

Voters "should not be forced to accept the electronic equivalent of a broken lockbox to exercise their right to vote," lawyers for the plaintiffs said in written arguments.

An overhaul of Georgia's voting system so close to Election Day would be unprecedented. Maryland and Virginia recently made quick switches away from voting machines without a paper trail, but a switch in Georgia would take place on a much larger scale.

Ahead of statewide elections in 2017, the Virginia State Board of Elections decided to replace touchscreen machines in 140 precincts affecting 190,000 active voters.

Georgia has 27,000 voting machines spread around 159 counties. At the time of the 2016 election, 5.4 million people were registered to vote in the state.

The lawsuit names Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp, a candidate for governor, along with the state board of elections, and Fulton County in metro Atlanta.

"There is no 'Paper-Ballot Fairy' who, with magic wand at ready, can save Plaintiffs' half-baked plans' from devolving into fiasco," wrote lawyers for Kemp and the board of elections.

Scrutiny On Election Security In Georgia

Kemp, who is Georgia's top elections official, faces questions about his handling of cybersecurity, especially now that he's running for governor.

Georgia was not not one of the 21 states whose election systems were targeted by Russian hackers in 2016. But ahead of the 2016 election, passwords for poll workers and voter registration records were left exposed on an unsecured website at the Kennesaw State University Center for Election Systems, a state contractor.

Once the vulnerability at the center was revealed, and just days after voters and advocates filed their lawsuit over the voting machines, a key server related to the incident was erased. The university said it was following normal procedures in erasing the server.

Kemp insists Georgia's current election system is secure.

Earlier this year he formed a commission to examine moving the state to new machines with a paper trail. But he says making the switch ahead of the November midterms "would be an absolute disaster."

"A Big Distraction"

Georgians can already vote on paper by requesting an absentee ballot in the mail, completing it, and returning it to county officials. The voters and advocates behind the lawsuit propose expanding this system as an alternative to the electronic machines.

The plaintiffs propose that ballots would be mailed to all registered voters or they could go to their polling place and fill out a paper ballot. To handle the massive increase in paper ballots cast, the plaintiffs says Georgia could use surplus optical scanners from vendors and other states.

But election officials warn it's not that easy and a switch to paper ballots so close to Election Day would lead to long lines, confusion, lower turnout, and burdensome costs.

"We are in the throes of full steam ahead with this election. It would be a big distraction to make such a change this close in," said Lynn Bailey, executive director of the board of elections in Richmond County, Ga., where there are about 120,000 registered voters.

Without counting additional staff hours, Bailey estimates printing costs, extra equipment would mean an additional $65,000 to $75,000 in costs for the county.

The vast majority of Georgia's 159 counties are smaller than Richmond, with less cash to spare. Bailey says a switch to paper ballots would be especially difficult to handle for those counties.

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Paperless voting machines are having their day in court today in Georgia. A federal judge is weighing whether the state should use paper ballots instead of the electronic voting machines in November or whether all that would just create unnecessary chaos. Johnny Kauffman of member station WABE is following this and joins us now from Atlanta. So Johnny, who filed the case, and what are they worried about?

JOHNNY KAUFFMAN, BYLINE: This case comes from a few Georgia voters and election security advocates here. And they brought the case because Georgia is one of 14 states that uses these touch-screen voting machines. They don't produce a paper trail. And so if hackers manipulate vote totals or something else goes wrong, you can't do a recount or audit. And the plaintiffs say this undermines the state's interest in preventing voter fraud. It makes people less confident in the election. And they're like, we have these competitive midterms coming up. This is really urgent. There are some big races in Georgia, too. I think also there's the broader context - right? - of, you know, this news that Russian hackers targeted the election systems in 2016. And that brought a lot of attention and sort of energy behind this lawsuit.

MARTIN: Right. So what our state election officials saying? I mean, do they think paper's a good idea?

KAUFFMAN: Well, the top election official in Georgia is Secretary of State Brian Kemp. He also happens to be a Republican running for governor. He will be on the ballot whether it's paper or electronic, right? And for years, Kemp has faced a lot of questions about how he's handled election security. The most relevant example comes from - right around the 2016 election, there was this website overseen by a state contractor that was unsecured. And basically, open to the public were passwords from poll workers, voter registration records. Kemp blames the contractor for that. But whatever exactly happened, the incident did not reassure people about Georgia's election security. Also Kemp rejected help from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security twice that was helped to bolster, you know, Georgia's defenses. Other states were offered this stuff, too. Despite all this - right? - Kemp insists that Georgia's elections are secure. But when it comes to the lawsuit, he says switching to paper ballots right now - and he told me this - he said it would be, quote, "an absolute disaster."

MARTIN: I mean, would it be? I mean, it does seem, like, kind of short notice to switch two months before an election.

KAUFFMAN: It's really short notice. And, you know, Georgians can already vote on paper by requesting an absentee ballot in the mail. So what the plaintiffs in this case want to do - these voters and advocates - is expand that absentee ballot system, this paper system, as an alternative to the electronic machines. Some ideas they have would be sending out absentee ballots to the entire state, supplying them at polling places on Election Day. Whatever - if the judge decides to throw out the electronic machines, it would probably be up to them to decide. But election officials here like Lynn Bailey, who's from Richmond County, east of Atlanta - they're worried about this. And she says - Bailey does - that switching to paper ballots so close to Election Day would lead to long lines, confusion, lower turnout and would be expensive.

LYNN BAILEY: We are in the throes of full steam ahead with this election. It would be a big distraction to make such a change this close in.

KAUFFMAN: One thing to note about Georgia is that we have a lot of counties here - 159 counties. A lot of people would say that's too many counties. And most are even smaller than Richmond County where Bailey is. So it's these smaller counties Bailey is worried about. They don't have as many resources. Making this switch would be a lot harder for them. So if the judge does throw out the voting machines, it's going to create a lot of scrambling and questions about how exactly to do it before November 6.

MARTIN: All right, Johnny Kauffman with member station WABE in Atlanta - thanks so much, Johnny. We appreciate it.

KAUFFMAN: You're welcome.

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