Georgia Says Not Enough Time, Resources To Switch To Paper Ballots

Sep 13, 2018

A federal judge could decide as soon as tomorrow whether Georgia must switch from digital touchscreen voting machines to a paper ballot system.

A group of election integrity advocates and concerned Georgia voters say the change needs to be made before November’s election.

GPB’s Stephen Fowler was in yesterday’s hearing. He spoke to GPB's Rickey Bevington about the case.

RICKEY BEVINGTON: Stephen, walk me through the purpose of yesterday’s hearing, and what exactly is at stake for this fall’s elections.

STEPHEN FOWLER: We’re here for two reasons.

One, Georgia has about 27,000 direct-recording electronic voting machines, or DREs, that have been in place for the last sixteen.  They don’t print out a verifiable paper copy of your vote once you cast it, and some academics and cybersecurity experts say they are vulnerable to attacks that could erase or change votes.

Two, the state says there’s no problems with these machines for November’s election, there’s no evidence they have been hacked, and the security measures they put into place will safeguard the election. Relatedly, earlier this week the State Elections Board officially denied a petition to switch to paper ahead of November.

Judge Amy Totenberg allowed the hearing – all 8 hours of it – because she said election security and integrity is an issue of great public importance. 

And there were more than 100 people there in the courtroom and an overflow room. She’ll decide potentially by tomorrow, or Monday at the latest, whether Georgia must make the switch, and what that might look like if it did.

BEVINGTON: So who are these people requesting paper ballots, and what evidence did they bring to the courtroom?

FOWLER: There are two plaintiffs asking for the change: a group of Georgia voters who expressed concerns with the DRE machines and the security of their vote, and the Coalition for Good Governance, an advocacy group that wants quote verifiable elections.

One expert was Alex Halderman, a computer science professor from Michigan who brought in a voting machine similar to what Georgia uses. He put in an infected memory card that changed a mock election that voted for George Washington three times to show two votes for his opponent – Benedict Arnold.

The plaintiffs also pointed to a 2016 incident at Kennesaw State University, where a researcher was able to access a server used as part of the elections process. Now, the director of the elections center at KSU says that researcher didn’t actually download or access anything linked to voter info or ballot-making, but the plaintiff’s lawyers say that’s more proof paper is the way to go.

BEVINGTON: Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who is on the ballot this fall running for governor, has said making the switch to paper ballots this close to the election would be "chaos." What did attorneys have to say about that?

FOWLER: Attorneys for the Secretary of State’s office and Fulton County brought in elections officials that said moving to paper less than 8 weeks before an election logistically wouldn’t work.

To count the paper ballots, it takes an optical scanner. Georgia has 891 scanners. Those would have to count more than 3 million votes. Fulton County says that could take several days for them. And they say they couldn’t possibly buy enough new scanners, let alone in time for the election.

Also, officials say it would take more time to rebuild ballot databases, train poll workers, buy ballot boxes, print and deliver the ballots… and all of this has to be done before early voting begins October 15. Fulton County's elections director testified the logistics and cost would mean there would only be one early voting location instead of about 20.

Finally, former secretary of state Cathy Cox testified the last time Georgia had a predominantly paper ballot system, she saw a higher error rate with ballots cast, and that had a higher impact on voters in lower-income and predominately African-American communities.