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Georgia Ordered to Ditch Old Voting Machines, Implement Paper Ballot Backup for 2020

Row of voting booths
By Christopher Coble, Esq. on August 19, 2019

"Every vote counts," as they say. But is every vote really counted, and how? The State of Georgia is one of five states that rely entirely on electronic voting machines to decide elections, machines that are distressingly easy to hack to guarantee a specific candidate always wins.

Those voting machines were subject to a legal challenge prior to the 2018 state elections, but, despite finding ample evidence that it was unlikely that votes cast on the machines were being counted properly, U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg declined to issue an injunction at the time. Not so for the upcoming 2020 primaries and election.

Totenberg ordered Georgia to scrap its existing voting machines for an updated system, and to create a paper ballot backup protocol in case the new system is not online in time.

Court Concerns

Gone are the Diebold AccuVote DRE (short for direct recording electronic) voting machines, which lack an independent paper backup. Georgia claims it has certified Dominion Voting Systems to replace the new system, and that it can begin rollout this fall, but Judge Totenberg was skeptical it would be fully operational in time for 2020:

Given this slippage in just the initial stages of implementation of the new voting system and the State's significant scaling back of the planned pilot program for testing purposes, the Court has concerns about the State's ability to procure, test, and install the equipment for all 159 counties, implement an entirely new elections management, ballot building, and voter registration system, and perform the necessary training of local election officials in the schedule set by the State. As Plaintiffs have convincingly presented, the threat of election interference has only grown since they were here before the Court seeking relief one year ago in September 2018, while the State Defendants have only just begun to launch necessary steps to provide a more secure election. Given the State's demonstrated capacity limits in managing the issues that have arisen in connection with Georgia's elections systems to date and the evidence that the State itself has previously provided regarding the challenges of such a condensed time frame for a statewide rollout of a major change in voting methods, the Court has real reason for concern regarding the State's capacity for effectively handling the mammoth undertaking of starting from scratch and facilitating a rollout of the new voting system in 100 percent of the counties and precincts by the promised primary election deadline of March 24, 2020. The Court is further concerned whether the State has a backup plan other than the tainted DRE/GEMS system if its BMD system is not ready to launch in all counties statewide.

So, what's the acceptable backup plan? Hand-marked paper ballots and scanners.

"Georgia's current voting equipment, software, election and voter databases, are antiquated, seriously flawed, and vulnerable to failure, breach, contamination, and attack," Totenberg ruled, citing "the mountain of voter testimony showing that these vulnerabilities have a tangible impact on these voters' attempts to exercise their fundamental right to cast a ballot and have their vote counted."

New Votes, Same as the Old Votes

"The past may here be prologue anew -- it may be 'like déjà vu all over again,'" Totenberg quipped, quoting baseball and philosophy legend Yogi Berra. In fact, less than a week after Totenberg's ruling, Georgia voters (some of whom were involved in the previous litigation), filed a new challenge to the state's proposed replacement system, Dominion Voting Systems. They claim the new system isn't any more reliable than the old Diebold system, and it doesn't comply with a new Georgia law mandating that "electronic ballot markers shall produce paper ballots which are marked with the elector’s choices in a format readable by the elector."

Judge Totenberg may have been trying to guarantee "transparency for the future" with her 153-page ruling, but the legal future of Georgia voting systems is anything but clear.

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