Judge orders Georgia to scrap old voting machines in 2020

Today is likely one of the last chances many Georgia voters will get to use the state's old balloting technology as they go to the polls to decide local elections. Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

Georgia will not switch to paper ballots for an upcoming round of elections starting this fall after a federal judge ruled Thursday this fall’s contests will use the state’s 17-year-old voting technology until paper-based ballots are required next year.

The state’s electronic touchscreen ballot machines can remain in use this year while Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office replaces them with $107 million-worth of new ballot-marking devices, according to the ruling by  U.S. Northern District Court Judge Amy Totenberg. The new machines should be used in Georgia’s 159 counties ahead of the 2020 Presidential Preference Primary in March 2020.

If the new machines aren’t ready in time for the primary, voters must use paper ballots filled out by hand, Totenberg ordered. The state is also directed to establish ways to  address errors in the state’s voter registration database and to clearly communicate rules on provisional ballots, which are cast when precinct workers can’t verify a voter’s registration.

The judge barred the state from using its antiquated ballot machines after 2019, saying it would be “indefensible given the operational and constitutional issues at stake.”

In her 153-page ruling, the judge criticized the security features and performance of the existing machines, calling them “highly susceptible to manipulation and malfunction” as well as hacking.

The ruling comes about two weeks after Raffensperger’s office contracted with Dominion Voting Systems to install new ballot-counting devices that record votes in a barcode and print paper copies of the ballot for a voter’s review before being scanned. Dominion won a nearly $107 million contract to install the machines several months after the Georgia General Assembly approved legislation to overhaul an an aging election system.

Critics of the new devices say it’s not a true paper ballot system since votes are tabulated from a printed  barcode. Plaintiffs in the 2017 federal lawsuit, including the nonprofit Coalition for Good Governance, say they plan to file a new complaint soon targeting the Dominion devices, according to the Coalition’s executive director, Marilyn Marks. Marks praised the judge’s ruling in an email Thursday, but called the new devices “just as insecure and un-auditable as the current system.”

In a statement Thursday Raffensperger said no evidence has surfaced that the existing machines were hacked or inaccurately counted votes in the past. His office wants the public to be confident the new devices will produce accurate results once they’re brought online.

Raffensperger’s office “is already moving full steam ahead” to install the new machines before March 2020, the statement said.

Still, the judge’s ruling provides for hand-written ballots if the March deadline is missed. The states’ slow procurement process this year gives reason to doubt the new system will be ready by election time, the ruling said.

Six counties will serve as test runs for the new machines this November.

Concerns about Russian interference in the 2018 presidential election heightened public awareness that the state’s existing ballot machines could be hacked. Georgia’s machines run on software from 2002, when iPods were new and before cell phones had cameras. Criticism of their fallibility spiked after the governor’s election last fall. Some complaints stemmed from equipment malfunctions on Election Day that spurred long lines and voter suspicion. Other complaints had little to do with the equipment itself, such as allegations of widespread voter roll purging.

Stacey Abrams’ new Fair Fight Action elections security nonprofit Thursday hailed the judge’s ruling. Abrams lost the 2018 governor’s race to Gov. Brian Kemp last year as he oversaw the election  as Secretary of State.

Kemp’s office did not respond Thursday to a request for comment about the ruling.

Beau Evans
Beau Evans has covered local and state government and breaking news in New Orleans and California. He’s reported on immigration issues, the threat of rising seas to coastal areas, public safety and hurricanes. At The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, Evans detailed the critical role government plays to ensure that people in a community have access to clean water and other public needs. In 2018, his investigative reporting revealed top officials at New Orleans’ cash-poor water utility dealt themselves huge raises, prompting several to resign. Evans’ prior reporting was in West Marin north of San Francisco for The Point Reyes Light. Evans is an Atlanta native who graduated with honors from The Lovett School and is an honors graduate of North Carolina’s Davidson College. Beau was with the Georgia Recorder until January 4th, 2020.

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