Ge­or­gia com­mis­sion to rec­om­mend switch to ma­chine-marked bal­lots

Ledger-Enquirer - - Front page - BY KATE BRUMBACK

HAND-MARKED PA­PER BAL­LOTS ARE CON­SID­ERED MORE SE­CURE, BUT SEV­ERAL COUNTY ELEC­TIONS OF­FI­CIALS RAISED CON­CERNS ABOUT THE PO­TEN­TIAL FOR VOTER OR POLL WORKER ER­ROR.

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 po­ten­tial re­place­ment equip­ment 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 long warned that they are un­re­li­able and vul­ner­a­ble to hack­ing. There’s also no way to do an ef­fec­tive au­dit or con­firm votes have been 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. 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 bal­lots marked by hand and 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 a pub­lic com­ment

pe­riod Thurs­day, most speak­ers said 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.

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 amount of money on a sys­tem based on bal­lot-mark­ing ma­chines that are less se­cure and could be­come quickly out­dated, since tech­nol­ogy evolves so quickly, Lee said. Top cy­ber­se­cu­rity and com­puter sci­ence ex­perts over­whelm­ingly agree that hand- marked pa­per bal­lots are the most se­cure, Lee said.

Some bal­lot-mark­ing ma­chines print out bar­codes that cor­re­spond to the voter’s se­lec­tions, as well as a sep­a­rate list that’s read­able by a voter. 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 that are scanned by ma­chines.

“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,” group 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.

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.

MIKE STE­WART AP

Vot­ers cast their bal­lots ahead of the Nov. 6 gen­eral elec­tion at Jim Miller Park in Ma­ri­etta. A com­mis­sion tasked with ex­am­in­ing po­ten­tial re­place­ments for Ge­or­gia’s out­dated elec­tion sys­tem rec­om­mends up­grad­ing the sys­tem by the 2020 elec­tion.

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