The state of Georgia, still reeling from reports of multiple election security breaches over the past two years, has moved one perilous step closer to replacing its 16-year-old F-rated touchscreen voting machines with yet another glaringly vulnerable touchscreen voting system.
Ignoring the advice of independent cybersecurity experts, Georgia’s Secure, Accessible & Fair Elections (SAFE) Commission on Thursday recommended that the state purchase controversial new touchscreen ballot-marking devices that use barcodes to capture and count voters’ selections.
This is the type of voting system that Governor Brian Kemp (R) and the state’s current voting machine vendor, Election Systems & Software, LLC (ES&S), promoted during a pilot study in Rockdale last year, when Kemp was secretary of state. This is also the type of system that triggered substantial controversy during Georgia’s last legislative session, when Republican lawmakers tried and failed to pass a bill that would have enabled Kemp to buy ES&S’s barcode balloting system back then. The SAFE Commission was assembled by Kemp in response to that failed legislation, and its recommendation is expected to carry weight during the current legislative session.
That recommendation thumbs its nose at the advice of every independent cybersecurity expert who has weighed in on the issue of how to improve Georgia’s voting system.
In the past week alone, 24 highly regarded election experts, including many experts in election cybersecurity, advised the SAFE Commission to reject touchscreen barcode systems and instead move to hand-marked paper ballots and scanners for most voters.
In fact, so did almost all citizens who made public comments. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, those who spoke in favor of the touchscreen barcode system consisted primarily of lobbyists and election officials.
The commission sided with the vendor lobbyists and election officials (who have already made Georgia’s election system a national disgrace). And in a state like Georgia, with its history of rampant voter suppression, there is much cause for concern.
The touchscreen system that the commission recommended generates paper printouts with barcodes that are supposed to encapsulate voters’ selections. These barcodes, which humans can’t read, are the only portion of the paper printouts counted by the scanners. According to computer science professor Richard DeMillo of Georgia Tech, malevolent actors could manipulate the barcodes to do various things, such as instructing the scanners to flip votes, and voters would have no idea.
To be sure, the barcoded printouts also include human-readable text that purports to summarize the voters’ selections, and proponents of these systems claim that such text could hypothetically be used in a manual audit or manual recount. But Georgia doesn’t require manual audits or manual recounts. And even if it did, a recent study shows that most voters won’t notice if this text is manipulated to omit, change, or add races. Any manual audit or recount based on such easily manipulated text would be worthless.
But the potential for malicious mischief doesn’t end with the barcodes and easily manipulated printouts. Like all touchscreen voting systems, touchscreen barcode systems limit the number of people who can vote simultaneously to the number of touchscreens at the polling place. Thus, if corrupt officials wanted to re-create the long lines that plagued the 2018 midterms, all they’d have to do is send too few machines to certain polling places, or send broken ones, or forget the power cords and blame these and any other problems on “human error.”
In light of such concerns, Rep. Scott Holcomb (D) has said that he will propose a bill in the state legislature requiring hand-marked paper ballots instead. But the state House leader, David Ralston (R), has already said that he is hesitant to switch to hand-marked paper ballots, and the commission’s recommendation will make it more difficult for lawmakers to challenge his ill-conceived position.
Meanwhile, Kemp’s new deputy chief of staff just happens to be a lobbyist for ES&S, Georgia’s current voting machine vendor, which just happens to have a touchscreen barcode system that it wants to sell to the state of Georgia. These systems just happen to cost about $70 million more than hand-marked paper ballots and scanners, while causing the many problems discussed above. And ES&S just happens to have donated $30,000 to help elect Republicans to state office. This is every bit as terrible as it seems.
If you are a Georgia voter and want the state to move to hand-marked paper ballots rather than the touchscreen barcode system recommended by the SAFE Commission, please contact House Speaker David Halston and your own state senator and representative, whose contact information can be found here: http://www.legis.ga.gov/en-US/default.aspx
You can follow Jennifer Cohn at @jennycohn1