By Tia Lynn Ivey
When Morgan County voters go to cast ballots for the 2020 Presidential Primary election, they will be introduced to a new voting system and procedures. Although the new $107 million system has not yet been implemented, legal challenges have already been filed against it by voting rights activists who allege the new system cannot adequately secure and verify election outcomes.
Earlier this year, Federal Judge Amy Totenberg ruled Georgia’s current Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) voting system unconstitutional, ordering the system be thrown out by the end of 2019. The system came under scrutiny after complaints of malfunctioning machines, flipping votes, and tens of thousands of potential “missing votes” from the 2018 race for Lieutenant Governor.
In April 2019, Governor Brian Kemp signed House Bill 316 into law, which mandated a new uniform Ballot Marking Device (BMD) voting system be implemented throughout the State of Georgia.
“Georgia’s current voting equipment, software, election and voter databases are antiquated, seriously flawed and vulnerable to failure, breach, contamination and attack,” Totenberg wrote.
The state awarded a $107 million contract with Dominion Voting System to provide 30,000 new voting machines. The new system is sort of hybrid compromise between electronic touchscreens and paper ballots. The current DRE machines, which are touchscreens, do not provide any paper printout as a secondary record of votes. On the new machines, voters will still select candidates via touchscreen, but after choosing, instead of casting the ballot electronically, voter will press a “print your ballot” button. A printer attached to the machine will print the ballot on a full sheet of paper which voters can review before inserting it into a scanner for tabulation. The paper ballots will be locked away in a ballot box incase they are needed for audits or recounts.
“Election security is my top priority,” said Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in a press release. “We look forward to working with national and local elections security experts to institute best practices and continue to safeguard all aspects of physical and cybersecurity in an ever-changing threat environment.”
However, critics point out the new machines are still vulnerable to hacking, tampering, and malfunctions.
“Morgan County voters should be sure that the local officials know that the new system is unacceptable and will not withstand public scrutiny,” said Marilyn Marks, executive director of the Good Governance Coalition, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that focuses on election transparency and verifiability. “The new barcode voting system is an insult to value of every Georgian’s vote. The new system converts the votes into an undecipherable QR code onto a so-called ‘paper ballot’ that forces the voters to cast votes that they cannot read. The readable text that the touchscreen prints on the paper card along with the official QR barcode vote is meaningless, providing no assurance that the vote is recorded as the voter intended. The obscure barcode is the official vote at every stage in the process. The ‘audits’ called for in the new law are meaningless and a waste of taxpayers’ funds.”
Marks’s group and other voting rights and election activists advocate for a paper ballot system in which ballots are submitted through an optical scanner. Marks believes the new system still leaves elections vulnerable to error.
“The black box system election results simply cannot be verified or audited—just like the electronic system used now that lost 800 Morgan County votes for Lieutenant Governor last year,” said Marks. “This new electronic voting technology is being rapidly implemented in numerous states where election officials have not considered the serious security and constitutional problems with this unnecessary technology. Ours is the first challenge in the nation to this seriously flawed voting technology, and the case is expected to have an impact nationally as we expose the alarming flaws in barcode voting systems.”
“The State’s proposed new voting system takes the worst aspects of the current, unconstitutional system and doubles down on it. Imagine if you had to vote by telling a human stranger your preferences, and then they filled out a ballot for you in a language you couldn’t read, and that’s the ballot you had to cast,” said Robert McGuire, attorney for Coalition for Good Governance. “That is the new system, only instead of a human, you have to trust the machine—one that we know can and has been hacked in at least 20 different ways. We look forward to proving that the new system is even less secure, less accountable, and more unconstitutional than the current touchscreen system. Normally the curtain is supposed to be outside the voting booth, but Georgia’s proposed new system puts up a curtain between the voter and the ballot. The right to vote is an illusion if you can’t even tell whether the vote you are casting is the vote you want to cast because a hackable computer has encoded your votes in a barcode that you can’t read. Georgia expects voters just to trust the machine, and all the while the State knows the machine is hackable in at least 20 different ways. We look forward to proving that the new system is even less secure, less accountable, and more unconstitutional than the current touchscreen system.”
Jeanne Dufort, a member of the Morgan County Democrats, has also been advocating for a paper ballot system.
“We are swapping one electronic voting machine for another, and all electronic voting machines are vulnerable to manipulation and bad programming. Whatever happened to make 800 votes disappear in Morgan County last year can happen again,” said Dufort. “Now that the current election system has been banned on constitutional grounds, and the new proposed system has been challenged in Federal Court on similar grounds, isn’t it time to step back? Why should Georgia Taxpayers borrow $107M on a 20 year bond for tablets, printers, and scanners? Especially when they increase local costs to run elections, and may be banned on constitutional grounds. It’s madness, and we hope the Morgan County Board of Elections and Commissioners will take a stand for our voters and taxpayers, and decide to conduct 2020 elections with hand marked paper ballots, as Georgia law allows.”
According to Jennifer Doran, Morgan County’s Election Supervisor, the new system will be paid for by the state, but will come at some cost to the county—a cost already accounted for in the new fiscal year’s budget in the amount of $1,900.
“The State is paying for all the voting equipment,” said Doran. “The only costs for us are the paper ballots, which are 13 cents each. The paper ballot costs have already been budgeted for this fiscal year. Further down the road, there will be costs for replacing toner in the printers attached to the BMDs.”
Doran also acknowledged other fees tied to the new system but have not been decided upon by the state who will pay for those fees.
According to the contract with Dominion, for Morgan County, the annual license renewal fees will add $8,473 to the cost of elections in 2022.
“The State has not said who will cover those costs,” said Doran. “They are still working on that.”
Doran also noted that if the new system is not implemented by the March 2020 Presidential Primary election, then Georgia voters will have to use paper ballots.
“The system we have now cannot be used again after 2019,” said Doran. “It’s either the new voting system or paper ballots.”