Georgia's outdated election system has drawn criticism from cybersecurity experts and voting integrity advocates, and now a commission tasked with examining potential replacements is preparing to make recommendations to lawmakers.
The paperless system was closely scrutinized during last year's nationally watched gubernatorial race between Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp, who was Georgia's secretary of state and chief elections official. Abrams and her allies accused Kemp of suppressing minority votes and mismanaging the election, including by neglecting elections infrastructure. Kemp, now governor-elect, has vehemently denied those allegations.
Cybersecurity experts have warned that the touchscreen voting machines Georgia has used since 2002 are unreliable and vulnerable to hacking, and provide no way to do an audit or confirm that votes have been recorded correctly because there's no paper trail.
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The state's voting system has been challenged in lawsuits, including one filed after the November election by Fair Fight Action, a nonprofit backed by Abrams. In addition to the outdated machines, critics also raised concerns after security lapses exposed the personal information of Georgia voters.
U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg wrote in September that Georgia election officials had stalled too long in the face of "a mounting tide of evidence of the inadequacy and security risks" of the state's voting system. She declined to order the state to use paper ballots in the midterm elections, saying there was not enough time before voting began. But she warned that "these same arguments would hold much less sway in the future."
Kemp has insisted that the current system is secure and reliable. But after legislative efforts to replace it failed earlier this year, he established the Secure, Accessible and Fair Elections, or SAFE, Commission in April to study potential replacements.
Made up of lawmakers, political party representatives, voters and election officials, the commission is expected to make recommendations before the legislative session begins Jan. 14. A vendor demonstration of election technology is scheduled for Thursday.
Ryan Germany, general counsel for the secretary of state's office, told the commission at a meeting last month in Macon that Georgia must act quickly.
"The 2020 election cycle is an aggressive goal, but I think it's the correct goal," he said, adding that the state would almost certainly face additional litigation if a new system isn't in place by then.
The commissioners seemed to agree Georgia's system should produce a paper record and that election officials should conduct post-election audits.
Some commission members said they support paper ballots that voters mark by hand, filling in bubbles with a pen or pencil. But others prefer touchscreen ballot-marking machines that print a paper record.
Republican State Rep. Barry Fleming, who co-chairs the commission, said costs vary widely. Initial expenditures would be roughly $50 million for a hand-marked paper ballot system and about $150 million for a ballot-marking machine system, he said at last month's meeting.
Georgia Tech computer science professor Wenke Lee, the only computer and cybersecurity expert on the commission, told his fellow commissioners that technology evolves quickly and investing in an expensive, tech-heavy system could leave Georgia with an outdated system again within just a few years. He recommended hand-marked paper ballots read by optical scanner.
"From a cybersecurity point of view, that's the best available solution," he said at the meeting. "Now, if you say we don't want that, you need to justify why."
Supporters of ballot-marking machines argue that they reduce voter error and provide better accessibility for voters with disabilities. They say the touchscreen machines are similar to those in use now, so voters already know how to use them.
Critics say such machines are no more secure than the current system and don't actually allow voters to verify their votes.
The machines print out barcodes that correspond to the voter's selections, as well as a separate list that's readable by a voter. But votes are counted by machines that scan the barcodes, so there's no way for voters to know whether what's scanned actually reflects their votes, said Marilyn Marks, executive director of the Coalition for Good Governance, which has sued the state over the current system.
Additionally, she said, voters may not notice if a race is missing or may not remember how they voted on, say, "Statewide Referendum B."
Wenke said voters might not bother to review a printout. If what the machine recorded is incorrect and the voter doesn't catch it, the ability to audit is meaningless, he said.
Commission member Darin McCoy, the probate judge and election superintendent in Evans County, dismissed that concern.
"If we provide the voter with a paper ballot of what they've done and they don't take the time to look at that and verify, there's nothing we can do," he said. "That's the voter's responsibility."
After the commission makes its recommendations, lawmakers would have to pass legislation to change the state's election laws. Funding would have to be secured and the system purchased in time to educate election workers and voters.
Whatever they decide, the timeline is tight. Commission members seemed to agree they'd like to have a trial run during the November 2019 municipal elections and implement a new system statewide for the 2020 election cycle.