Georgia’s new voting machines buggy in Tuesday’s election debut

Dominion voting screens and stands at The Events Place precinct in Hiram, part of the new machine's pilot test on Tuesday. (Beau Evans/Georgia Recorder)

Glitches with check-in pads and ballot selection screens that turned off on their own delayed voters Tuesday in six Georgia counties that pilot tested the state’s $107 million new voting machines.

Election officials in Bartow, Carroll, Catoosa, Decatur, Lowndes and Paulding counties reported technical issues with new equipment, either with electronic entry points or with the new ballot-marking machines themselves. The six counties provided a limited number of Georgians their first chance to cast a ballot on Dominion Voting Systems and KnowInk equipment ahead of a late March 2020 election deadline for statewide rollout.

The Georgia Secretary of State’s office is on a tight schedule to have 30,000 of the machines ready for 2020 elections. It bought them from Dominion Voting at the end of July and a contractor certified them as technically sound two weeks later.

Voters in five counties experienced problems with new check-in devices, called “poll pads,” caused by a programming error that prevented them from using electronic ballot-marking machines. In three counties, some ballot-marking machines were pulled offline when they shut down and rebooted themselves.

The off-year election for cities and counties drew a light turnout Tuesday, which placed less pressure on county poll workers to resolve problems with the check-in devices or use paper ballots until technicians fixed the problem. Enough machines were on hand to replace equipment with the reboot malfunction. Only a handful of people left precincts without voting or returning later to vote as precincts were kept open an extra hour, officials said.

The Secretary of State’s office emailed a statement Wednesday evening saying it is still determining the extent of the problem.

“We are currently gathering information,” said Jordan Fuchs, deputy secretary of state. “We have received information of some isolated reports with the poll pads but don’t yet have all the details. Technicians were deployed in the pilot counties to address these types of issues. That’s why we do equipment pilots like this in a low-turnout elections and why we have multiple backup measures.”

On Monday, the Secretary of State issued a press release based on early voting headlined “New voting system performs well in pilot counties, deliveries on schedule.”

‘Literally went black’

Voters in five counties were delayed by up to 45 minutes from checking in to precincts and creating access cards by buggy poll pads, which must function to cast votes on the new ballot-marking machines. Election supervisors in those counties said some poll pads failed to connect via Bluetooth. Some voters got confused when the machine asked them to select a party affiliation in the nonpartisan local elections. And some problems are chalked up to programming errors.

“We have the next couple of weeks to investigate these issues and figure out what happened,” said Joseph Kirk, supervisor for the Bartow County Board of Elections and Voter Registration. “But anytime you deploy something new in the real world, things happen.”

Meanwhile, some precincts in Bartow, Catoosa and Carroll counties saw ballot-marking machines suddenly shut down and reboot during voting hours, officials in those counties said.

“Some of the machines just literally went black and rebooted during the day,” said Greg Rigby, supervisor for the Carroll County Board of Elections and Voter Registration. “It was different precincts, different machines, different hours.”

A few machines also stopped reading the access cards, which kept voters from making selections on the machine’s screen that displays the ballot, Rigby said.

Dominion and KnowInk did not respond to emails and phone calls Wednesday asking for an explanation for the equipment malfunction.

The voting machines put to a limited test Tuesday and during early voting replace the state’s existing 17-year-old electronic touch-screens, which a federal judge ordered in August never to be used again after this year

Testing fell short, critics say

Proponents for all-paper voting systems criticized Tuesday’s performance of the new ballot machines and check-in poll pads. They argued Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger needed to complete more stringent testing of the equipment before certifying the new voting system in August.

That testing to assess the equipment’s functionality fell short of a full examination of how the machines and check-in devices will perform in upcoming elections, said Richard DeMillo, a computer science professor at Georgia Tech’s College of Computing.

“I do think they cut corners,” DeMillo, who advocates for paper-only balloting, said Wednesday. “They short-circuited a fairly well-defined process, and this is the consequence of doing that.”

In August, Raffensperger agreed to reexamine the ballot machines after about 1,500 people petitioned him to do that. That review has not happened yet.

Raffensperger has previously labeled the petitioners as partisan activists. His office defends the new voting system’s security and its transparency, noting that scanning the printed ballots as the final step in the process creates an auditable paper trail.

Editor John McCosh contributed to this report.

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.