Georgia’s Voting Machine ‘Reform’ Is a Threat to Free and Fair Elections

This voting machine “reform” package is a power grab meant to enrich Gov. Kemp’s friends.

[Photo: Voting booths sit at a voting machine facility warehouse.]
Georgia is one of only five states that relies on electronic voting machines with no paper trail. The state’s current aging machines leave no meaningful way to conduct election audits, leaving results open to manipulation. Drew Angerer / Getty Images

Georgia is poised to become the first state to rely entirely on electronic ballot marking devices. While this may seem like a simple government procurement issue, the passage of the voting machine reform bill provides a sweetheart deal to voting machine vendors while setting aside election security and integrity.

HB 316 paves the way for Georgia to purchase new but insecure voting machines. It passed last month in the state legislature—after a gubernatorial election in November many believe to have been corrupted by massive voter suppression. The law now awaits the governor’s signature.

The bill should be considered within the context of the long history of voter disenfranchisement, suppression, and intimidation in the state—including under former Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who is now the governor. As secretary of state, Kemp oversaw a wide web of activity targeted at disenfranchising and restricting marginalized communities’ access to the ballot box. That included targeting organizations and staffers who registered voters of color and expressing concern about registering minority voters.

This “reform” package is a power grab meant to enrich Kemp’s friends—posing yet another threat to free and fair elections in Georgia for the next 20 years.

HB 316 in a Nutshell

Georgia is one of only five states that relies on electronic voting machines with no paper trail. The state’s aging machines leave no meaningful way to conduct election audits, leaving results open to manipulation.

HB 316 has been touted as the cure for all that is ailing the state’s system of elections. It purportedly seeks to remedy the issues with the current system and permits the secretary of state to contract with a voting machine company to supply the state with a new voting system.

The measure provides for paper confirmation of an individual’s vote and provisions for audits of the results. These risk-limiting audits are considered the best measure to safeguard election results. Unlike most states—which use a mixture of voting systems and machine types—in Georgia, the entire state uses the same exact system and set of machines. Under HB 316, voters would make their selections on an electronic screen and receive a printout, which serves as the ballot.

Sounds like a win-win right? If only it were that simple.

Democratic legislators, election integrity advocates, and cybersecurity experts have instead pushed for the state to adopt a system using hand-marked paper ballots. Although proponents of the bill argue that voting on an electronic touchscreen machine with a paper receipt is a better indication of voter intent than a voter marking directly on a paper ballot, concerns about vote manipulation and hacking persist.

Election integrity advocates, members of the public, and cybersecurity experts have been unwavering in their insistence that the safest and best demonstration of voter intent is a hand-marked paper ballot. After Kemp established the Secure, Accessible & Fair Elections (SAFE) Commission “to study options for Georgia’s next voting system” last spring, experts advocated for hand-marked paper ballots to be made the primary means of voting in the state. Twenty-four cybersecurity experts sent a detailed letter to the commission in January over concerns about the vulnerability of touchscreen electronic voting machines and encouraging the adoption of hand-marked paper ballots.

The new voting machines, according to Politico, would “like the ones they’re replacing, allow voters to use a touchscreen to select their choices. But they also print out a slip of paper with the vote both displayed in plain text and embedded in a barcode.”

Allowing votes to be counted based on barcodes raises concerns regarding hacking or manipulating vote totals. A co-chair of the New York State Board of Elections submitted a formal request to decertify an electronic voting system similar to the one  Georgia legislators endorse. The machines at issue in New York have a noted defect that can allow for additional votes to be added. Attorney and Election Integrity Advocate Jennifer Cohn recently did a deep-dive into the widespread problems with these machines, often referred to as hybrid voting systems. Cohen suggested that these flaws make audits or recounts useless, as they would be based on the information provided from a corrupted machine printout.

Last year, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine issued recommendations on ensuring safe and tamperproof elections. Its recommendations specified that all elections “should be conducted using human-readable paper ballots.”

Serious concerns raised about the potential for hacking, manipulation of vote totals, or other actions to influence election outcomes are compounded by a history of election insecurity under Kemp. For example, on Kemp’s watch as secretary of state, voter information and poll worker passwords “were left exposed on an unsecured website at the Kennesaw State University Center for Election Systems, a state contractor,” according to NPR.

Electronic Ballot Marking Devices Are a Costly Mistake

The electronic ballot marking devices championed by proponents of HB 316 are also expensive. Kemp’s budget for fiscal 2020 set aside $150 million for the initial purchase of the new devices. However, questions about the accuracy of those cost estimates have persisted. Just hours before voting on it took place, unredacted vendor proposals published by Georgia Public Broadcasting showed estimates were greater than previously reported.

The reports also raised serious questions about potential future costs involving maintenance and licensing for the machines that could be passed along to county election boards, which may lead to concerns about passing costs along to county and local governments. It is unclear if county election officials who were previously in support of the proposed electronic ballot marking devices were aware of the potential cost shifting to the counties. This and the lack of a legally required “fiscal note” for the bill were raised in the final floor discussion ahead of the state senate’s vote but were ultimately ignored.

Further, a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union filed in March against the four largest counties in Georgia asserts the counties have failed in their duty of providing free and fair election with existing resources. The counties, according to the ACLU, did not provide “sufficient resources to provide enough polling places, voting machines, and staff to run a proper high-turnout election.” Saddling the counties with even more of a burden and potential costs would seemingly further frustrate the ability to administer free and fair elections.

Voting Machine Lobbyists Interfere With the Democratic Process

The influence of the voting machine lobby, particularly lobbyists with Election Systems and Software (ES&S) has been present from the start. Kemp’s deputy chief of staff, Charles Harper, was a registered lobbyist for ES&S until June 2018. Prior to ES&S, Harper was a registered lobbyist for the Secretary of State’s Office and served as Kemp’s legislative director.

Writing for the New Yorker, Sue Halpern summed up the situation in Georgia perfectly.

“Georgia turns out to be a prime example of how voting-system venders, in partnership with elected officials, can jeopardize the democratic process by influencing municipalities to buy proprietary, inscrutable voting devices that are infinitely less secure than paper-ballot systems that cost three times less,” Halpern wrote.

In 2017, ES&S conducted a small pilot test of its electronic ballot marking devices for a municipal election in Rockdale County, Georgia, thus laying the groundwork for its selection as the vendor for Georgia’s new machines. November 2017 testimony by Verified Voting before the Georgia House science and technology committee, noted that “The trial in Rockdale was unusual in that no jurisdiction in the U.S. currently employs an electronic touchscreen device for all voters.” As the largest producer of electronic ballot marking devices, ES&S heavily influenced legislation it stands to benefit from financially.

The taint of corruption undermines any possible confidence voters can have in their elected officials. A recent poll conducted by the Public Policy Polling found that 74 percent of Georgians were “concerned about one of Governor Brian Kemp’s top staffers being a former lobbyist for a voting machine company.”

What Now?

As Georgia’s election system and handling of the 2018 election is now under a U.S. House oversight committee investigation, one would think proponents of voting machine legislation would avoid the appearance of corruption and other impropriety. Georgia’s elected officials hold stewardship over democracy for voters and future potential voters. Proponents of HB 316—including Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger—have breached a duty owed to all current and future Georgia voters. The rush to purchase these machines raises real concerns about what interest is being served.

Advocates and organizers are not backing down. Cam Ashling of the Georgia Advancing Progress PAC launched a petition to U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) requesting that HB 316 be taken into consideration in the ongoing investigation. Election advocates are also crowdfunding for a new round of lawsuits about this bill. This follows a federal lawsuit filed last November by Stacey Abrams’ Fair Fight Action seeking a massive overhaul of the state’s election system.

In a state with rapidly changing demographics, ignoring calls for verifiable voting systems that improve access and security help the majority hold on to its crumbling power. With a state government and legislature actively denying access to a free and fair system of elections, for many, federal intervention is the only remedy.

Facts, truth, and expert testimony are not partisan opinions. Elected officials who claim to belong to the party of “fiscal conservatism” have pushed forth an extremely costly plan that on no measure puts Georgia’s system of elections in a better place.

To quote state Rep. Renitta Shannon (D-Decatur) during her minority report on HB 316, Republicans have certainly changed their tune: “New party, who dis?”

CORRECTION: This piece has been updated to correctly identify U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings.