Judge Casts Doubt on Georgia Voting Machines But Declines to Order Change Before Election Day

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Yesterday, a federal judge expressed serious doubts about the security of the State of Georgia’s voting machines, and the state’s pace in responding to potential vulnerabilities – but declined to order a switch to paper ballots so close to Election Day 2018. The Journal-Constitution has more:

Georgia voters will continue to use touchscreens to cast their ballots this fall, perhaps for the last time.

A federal judge found a “concrete risk” that Georgia’s electronic voting system is vulnerable to tampering, but she ruled against a quick switch to paper ballots less than four weeks before early voting begins for November’s election.

U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg late Monday denied a motion from election integrity advocates who asked her to force the state’s 6.8 million registered voters to use hand-marked paper ballots instead of direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting machines…

Her decision ensures that Georgia’s 27,000 touchscreen machines will remain in place for the election for governor between Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who is responsible for overseeing elections. In-person early voting starts Oct. 15, and Election Day is Nov. 6.

The judge was critical of the state for its response to date in addressing the issue:

Totenberg scolded state election officials who “had buried their heads in the sand” by failing to safeguard Georgia’s voting system. She allowed the state to continue using electronic voting machines because a rushed transition to paper ballots could frustrate voters with “bureaucratic confusion and long lines…”

The state defendants have also stood by for far too long, given the mounting tide of evidence of the inadequacy and security risks of Georgia’s DRE voting system and software,” Totenberg wrote in her 46-page order. “The court is gravely concerned about the state’s pace in responding to the serious vulnerabilities of its voting system.”

Kemp said Georgia’s electronic voting machines are safe, and state and local governments have been preparing for the election for months.

“With this ruling behind us, we will continue our preparations for a secure, orderly election,” Kemp said. “Our state needs a verifiable paper trail, but we cannot make such a dramatic change this election cycle.”

Advocates who had sought the switch to paper ballots were disappointed yet encouraged that the court essentially agrees with them on the need for a new voting system:

“It’s the state’s duty to deliver accurate elections. We need clear evidence that the election is legitimate,” said Donna Price, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit and the director of Georgians for Verified Voting. “The decision is disappointing given the court’s acknowledgement of extraordinary vulnerabilities in the current system.”

The judge’s order cites examples of repeated problems where voting information wasn’t protected by the government.

A state elections computer at Kennesaw State University displayed voter information on the internet for months before it was taken down; the computer was erased while officials were investigating; and electronic voting machines rely on outdated software.

Election officials said in court last week that the government would have struggled to find money to buy enough paper ballots, count them in a timely manner and ensure accuracy.

“The judge’s decision turns on a single conclusion that it was just too late for this change,” said David Cross, an attorney for some of the plaintiffs. “Either the state is going to have to adopt some sort of measures that address these vulnerabilities and adopt a voting system that’s secure and verifiable for the 2020 election, or the court is going to see to it that it happens.”

The ruling will certainly be a topic of debate in the current race for Governor:

Abrams said Tuesday that if she defeats Kemp in the election, she’ll ensure elections are safe, secure and accessible.

“Georgians are hungry for leaders who will make sure every voice can count at the polls,” Abrams said.

No matter who wins, Georgia’s elected officials are already considering a transition to a paper-based voting system in time for the 2020 presidential election.

Kemp formed a commission to review options for the state’s next voting system, which could use hand-marked paper ballots or touchscreens to fill in and print paper ballots. The General Assembly plans to consider bills next year to choose and purchase a replacement voting system, which could cost anywhere from $20 million to well over $100 million.

In the meantime, the lawsuit seeking to invalidate Georgia’s electronic voting machines will continue to move through the courts. Totenberg said she wants to ensure the state government takes steps to ensure voters’ confidence in the integrity of elections.

“The 2020 elections are around the corner,” Totenberg wrote. “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 citizens’ fundamental right to cast an accountable vote.”

This ruling signals the impending end of an era; Georgia was an early statewide adopter of touchscreen voting technology after enactment of the Help America Vote Act, and I have long believed the state would be one of, if not THE, last state to abandon DREs. Change is coming to the Peach State … stay tuned!

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