The push to switch to paper ballots from electronic touchscreen voting machines in the upcoming November Midterm Election hit another roadblock last week.
A motion to permit use of paper ballots was denied again at the Morgan County Board of Elections and Registration (BOER) meeting on Thursday, Sept. 20. Once again, the vote to reject the motion proposed by BOER member Jackson Avery was narrow.
In a 3-to-2 vote, the motion to approve paper ballot voting failed, with BOER members Avery Jackson and Helen Butler in favor of the proposal and Dena Lanier and Scott Sellers opposing. Chairman Michael Ghioto broke the tie with an opposing vote, requesting that the motion be tabled in order to give all members adequate time to review relevant articles and new information concerning the issue.
A vocal group of Morgan County citizens have made more than one appeal to the BOER, as well as the Morgan County Board of Commissioners, and persisted to plead for election reform to prevent election tampering and hacking from foreign powers—specifically Russia.
“We know you’re able to do it without undue stress to the voters,” Gene Newport said at Thursday’s BOER meeting. “So, the question is: Will you do it? I’m here today to ask you to reconsider your decision that you made last in light of this new information, and vote to use paper ballots for all voters, not just some, for this upcoming election.”
Newport referenced statements from U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg’s 46-page order, which covers her concern for and legal research on Georgia’s unsecure election system, information from the National Academy of Sciences, and other sources to drive her petition.
While Totenberg did not opt to force Georgia to switch to paper ballots before the November election, she did issue words of caution in delaying the election reform for too long.
“While [the] plaintiffs have shown the threat of real harms to their constitutional interests, the eleventh-hour timing of their motions and an instant grant of the paper ballot relief requested could just as readily jeopardize the upcoming elections, voter turnout, and the orderly administration of the election,” Totenberg wrote in a 46-page opinion on the case brought before her by election security activists seeking the court to force Secretary of State Brian Kemp to abandon DRE’s and establish a paper ballot voting system. “The 2020 elections are around the corner,” she said. “If a new balloting system is to be launched in Georgia in an effective manner, it should address democracy’s critical need for transparent, fair, accurate and verifiable election processes that guarantee each citizen’s fundamental right to cast an accountable vote.”
Citizens in Morgan County interpreted Totenberg’s comments as reason enough for local authorities to make the switch to paper ballots.
“You’re not compliant with the federal law if you use the DREs (direct-recording electronic voting machines)…It is legal for you to act and use your emergency powers, it is prudent for you to act,” Newport urged. “The judges confirmed, and the cyber security experts have confirmed that it [digital election tampering] is real. It’s not probably a physical risk and it’s not a risk of what we are doing here mostly. It’s a risk of the outside that we can’t prevent.”
In her order, Judge Totenberg acknowledges the need for Georgia to have a secure election system and says that “it should address democracy’s critical need for transparent, fair, and verifiable election processes that guarantee each citizen’s fundamental right to cast an accountable vote.”
“This is not really an us versus them,” Angelinia Bellebuono said. “This is a great county. This is what can we do as a democracy to ensure, regardless of what candidate you support, that your vote is counted as you cast it… how can we protect the vote of every person.”
The tabled motion will be discussed at the next meeting and will be open to the public.
In August, citizens also urged the Morgan County Board of Commissioners to act on paper ballots before the November election. The Commissioners promised to look into it, but have not publicly commented on the matter since.
In August, County Attorney Christian Henry wrote a letter to the BOER advising the board that they are bound by state regulatory policies.
“Until the legislature and the State Election Board change the law regarding the use of DRE voting machines, the [BOER] cannot use paper ballots instead of DRE machines,” wrote Henry. According to Henry, The State of Georgia mandates that all election shall be conducted through DRE machines, and counties can only opt for other “lawful methods” when DRE machines a neither possible nor practical.
“It is my understanding that the desire to use paper ballots, rather than DRE machines, is not due to impossibility or impracticability, but because of concerns about the possible vote tampering. While this concern may be legitimate and worthy of attention, it would not justify the use of paper ballots as ‘impossible’ or ‘impractical,” even if such use was allowed where DRE equipment is used, which it is not.”
One of the advocates for paper ballots, Jeanne Dufort, took issue with Henry’s position.
“We hope our county attorney revisits his advice that the BOER is powerless to act, because of a rule,” said Dufort. “Georgia Law grants them the emergency power to act, and powers explicitly granted to a local body by law cannot be taken away by state regulators. Our BOER has a duty to ensure our vote is safe, and they have shirked that duty.”
According to Morgan County Election Supervisor Jennifer Doran, even if a switch to paper ballots were legally possible, changing the voting system this soon before an election would not be feasible due to budgetary limitations.
“We would have to spend $15,000 to purchase optical scan units for each of our seven voting precincts and a locked ballot box for $400 each for each precinct, too,” said Doran in August. “Our budget has passed for the fiscal year, so we don’t have that in our budget.”
Georgia, the first state to adopt DRE’s and only one of five states with paperless voting systems, has about 27,000 electronic voting machines According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, “roughly 70 percent of the country uses some form of paper ballots, which are invulnerable to digital tampering.”