Privacy concerns plague voting efforts

Staff Written News

By Tia Lynn Ivey

managing editor 

Georgia’s new $100 million voting system is plagued with voter privacy concerns as election advocacy groups ramp up efforts to persuade officials to ditch the new system altogether and make a last minute switch to paper ballots before the March 24 Presidential Primary Election. 

The Morgan County Board of Elections and Registration (BOER) discussed the new voting system at a special-called meeting last Thursday.  BOER member Helen Butler slammed the new system as confusing and worried that the “secrecy of the ballot” could not be guaranteed as the constitution demands. Butler noted the new Ballot Marking Device (BMD) voting system poses serious privacy concerns. 

“Because of the size of the screen, there has been a lot of conversation about people being able to read your choices,” said Butler. “But the constitution guarantees privacy…How do we guarantee there is privacy? You cannot turn [the machines] away from the election officials because they are supposed to be in sight at all time because of hacker tampering.” 

“If you are standing in line or behind the barrier you can still see how people are voting,” said Election Supervisor Jennifer Doran. 

While Morgan County received the main voting equipment a couple of weeks ago, officials have not been able to experiment with the best layout to secure voter privacy since some of the “accessory” equipment has not arrived, including the blue state issues privacy screens. Officials are hoping once the privacy screens arrive, there will be a way to angle them to protect voter privacy and ensure election officials can watch out for any tampering efforts. 

However, election advocates were skeptical that such solution exists. 

Jeanne Dufort, who is part of an ongoing lawsuit launched by the Coalition for Good Governance to enact a paper ballot voting system, spoke at Thursday’s meeting. Dufort noted that other counties are wrestling with the privacy issues and have yet to find a solution. 

“The blue privacy screens aren’t going to change anything,” said Dufort. “So far, 18 counties have run pilot elections or special election. I think if there were a solution, one of them would have found it.”

Dufort, along with other citizens and election advocacy groups across the state are pushing for counties to adopt “Plan B,” a switch to paper ballots, before the primary election. 

Shelia Brennan, another local citizen, asked the BOER to adopt Plan B, fearing the negative consequences of voter privacy violations. She cited an incident from the Iowa Caucus that went viral online, when a woman wanted to change her vote cast for Pete Buttigieg after learning he was gay, which resulted in harassment of the woman after the video leaked online. 

“I am very concerned about the privacy,” said Brennan. “I had not seen the machines until I walked by and I was shocked they are huge and you can see them from far away,” said Brennan. “We are in such a divided times right now and there are so many hot button issues. There’s pro-choice or pro-life, homosexuality—there are so many hot button issues that if somebody is able to see somebody else’s vote that could become a real problem. Even with the privacy screen, if you are behind a person waiting in line to vote, you will still be able to see that person’s vote.”

Cheryl Bland, a member of the Morgan County Board of Education, also voiced concerns about voter privacy. 

“I am really concerned about voter privacy,” said Bland. “I don’t see where  there’s going to be a practical application to achieve it.”

Georgia scrapped the old touchscreen voting system after a federal judge mandated its replacement.

In 2019, 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 Georgia 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. 

The state awarded a $107 million contract with Dominion Voting System to provide 30,000 new voting machines in Georgia. 

The new system is sort of a hybrid compromise between electronic touchscreens and paper ballots. The old 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, the 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.

The Coalition for Good Governance issued a letter to the Morgan County BOER and Board of Commissioners to urge adopting a purely paper ballot system before it’s too late. 

“A coalition of both non-partisan and political organizations has come together to urge your county leadership to promptly ensure that the election board in your county has fully considered the risks in deploying the controversial BMD system,” wrote Marilyn Marks, executive director of the Coalition for Good Governance, advocating for Plan B. “Even if the secret ballot violation is somehow solved, a host of other operational problems generally remained unsolved, brought on by delayed delivery of voting units and the election software. Very few counties have received the election software although mail ballots go out Tuesday and should be tested in the programmed scanners before they are mailed. County election staff members seem to be determined to somehow make it through the impossible conditions and likely need the Commissioners’ support and guidance to make a choice to adopt a simpler plan for the March Presidential Primary. The March primary is a simple election that doesn’t require complex technology. Therefore, we suggest the serious consideration of Plan B…”

The BOER did not vote on the matter and plans to test the new voting system once all of the equipment arrives, which should be by February 14. 

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