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Commission Recommends Machine-Marked Ballots for Georgia

by Kate Brumback
Sunday Jan 13, 2019
In this Oct. 27, 2018 file photo, people cast their ballots ahead of the Nov. 6, general election at Jim Miller Park in Marietta, Ga.
In this Oct. 27, 2018 file photo, people cast their ballots ahead of the Nov. 6, general election at Jim Miller Park in Marietta, Ga.  (Source:AP Photo/Mike Stewart, File)

After Georgia's 2018 elections focused stinging criticism on the state's outdated election system, a study commission voted Thursday to recommend the use of machines that record votes and print a record.

Members of the panel tasked with considering a potential replacement chose that option over hand-marked paper ballots favored by cybersecurity experts.

The Secure, Accessible and Fair Elections, or SAFE, Commission voted 13-3 for a draft of a report to be sent to lawmakers, who are expected to decide on criteria for a new system during the legislative session that begins Monday. The commission includes lawmakers, political party representatives, voters and election officials.

Georgia's paperless touchscreen voting machines, in use since 2002, have been widely criticized. Cybersecurity experts have warned they are unreliable and vulnerable to hacking. There's also no way to do an effective audit or confirm votes are recorded correctly because there's no paper trail.

The state's voting system was a focal point during last year's high-profile gubernatorial race between Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp, who was Georgia's secretary of state and chief elections official. Abrams and her supporters accused Kemp of suppressing minority votes and mismanaging the election, including by neglecting elections infrastructure. Kemp, now governor-elect, vehemently denied those allegations.

Commission members agreed that Georgia needs a voting system with a paper record of votes cast, but disagreed over how ballots should be marked. The majority favored touchscreen ballot-marking machines that print a paper record, while the minority preferred paper hand-marked ballots read by optical scanners.

Georgia Tech professor Wenke Lee, the lone computer science and cybersecurity expert on the commission, repeatedly tried to insert language recommending hand-marked paper ballots, but was thwarted by the majority. Lee said afterward that he and the other dissenters — two Democratic lawmakers — will discuss submitting a minority report with their recommendations.

During public comments Thursday, most speakers argued hand-marked paper ballots are more secure, ensure a voter's intent is accurately captured, cost less and can help restore voter confidence.

But several county elections officials championed ballot-marking machines. They raised concerns about paper ballots, including printing costs and the potential for voter or poll worker error.

Secretary of State-elect Brad Raffensperger later told reporters it's especially important to listen to county election officials and their concerns about ongoing costs of paper ballots and ease of voting.

The commission report says the touchscreen ballot-marking machines are similar to the interface voters are used to and would also allow voters with disabilities to have nearly the same experience as other voters.

Lee said after the meeting that many concerns about paper ballots are based on experiences with outdated technology.

For example, he said, the latest scanners can read imperfect markings, discounting worries that voters may not fill in ovals on their ballots correctly. And claims that pre-printed paper ballots may go unused can be negated by having printers at polling places that print ballots as needed.

Commission co-chair Barry Fleming, a Republican state representative from Harlem, said at a meeting last month that initial expenditures would be roughly $50 million for a hand-marked paper ballot system and about $150 million for a ballot-marking machine system.

Georgia would be unwise to spend an enormous sum on a system based on ballot-marking machines that are less secure and could become quickly outdated, since technology evolves quickly, Lee said. Top cybersecurity and computer science experts overwhelmingly agree that hand-marked paper ballots are the most secure, he said.

Some ballot-marking machines print barcodes that correspond to the voter's selections, as well as a separate list readable by a person. But votes are counted by machines that scan the barcodes, so there's no way for voters to know whether what's scanned actually reflects their votes, critics say.

Verified Voting, a nonprofit group that advocates ensuring the accuracy of elections, last week urged the commission to recommend hand-marked paper ballots.

"A paper ballot that is indelibly marked by hand and physically secured from the moment of casting is the most reliable record of voter intent," president Marian Schneider wrote in a Jan. 4 letter. "A hand-marked paper ballot is the only kind of record not vulnerable to software errors, configuration errors, or hacking."

She cited a 2018 report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, "which represents the nation's best understanding of election security and integrity," that supports hand-marked paper ballots.

Another letter sent to the commission Monday and signed by two dozen computer science and security experts echoes those arguments.

The commission's recommendations also say the new system should be in place in time for the 2020 election and the state should require post-election audits to be conducted before results are certified.

Fleming said the General Assembly will have to rewrite state election law to specify requirements for a new voting system. If the governor signs the legislation, the secretary of state's office would likely solicit proposals and purchase the system, he said.

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