“They provide an invaluable service to the state of Georgia,” Secretary of State Brian Kemp said. “This investment of taxpayer dollars provides a safe, secure and uniform election system that Georgia can be proud of.”
The KSU-owned, eight-employee center is fully funded by its one client: the Georgia Office of the Secretary of State, which pays it $704,000 a year for its services.
The center was founded in 2002 as a unit of the College of Science and Mathematics at KSU as part of then-Secretary of State Cathy Cox’s rollout of a uniform voting system.
“We had an uncoordinated voting system in the state of Georgia,” said Merle King, the center’s executive director. “Each county could select whatever voting system they could afford, which in many of the poor counties was hand-counted paper ballots.”
Following the 2000 election, Cox organized a commission to look at voting issues in Georgia.
“We had a large number of spoiled ballots in the 2000 election,” King said. “Really more than Florida, but the election wasn’t close in Georgia. But the recognition was that we had dodged a bullet, so to speak — that if that kind of scrutiny had come to the state of Georgia, we would have fared poorly.”
The state spent $54 million in rolling out a uniform system in 2002.
“The secretary recognized that there would be additional support needs for that,” King said. “Initially, the thought was we would train poll workers. The realization once the system started to come online was this was much larger and much more complicated than had been envisioned, so we were asked to take on the auditing of the vendor’s warehouse operations.”
King, who was chair of KSU’s Computer Science Information Department at the time, opened the election center in 2002 with three employees in KSU’s continuing education facility on the east side of Interstate 75.
“We started auditing the warehouse operations of the vendor, making sure invoicing was correct,” he said. “If they stated they shipped 500 units to Fulton County, we verified the bill to make sure those units were in fact shipped.”
Once the auditing was done, the state asked the center to test the technology, as required by the state election board.
“We ended up testing every piece of equipment after it was delivered to the counties. At the time, it was about 16,000 touchscreen units, 160 servers, 8,000 encoders and 600 optical-scan units. That’s become a routine part of our operation here,” King said. “The great thing is, the confidence that the election officials and the voters get is that every piece of gear that you vote on, it’s been wrung out, it’s been looked at by us at least five times.”
When an election takes place in Georgia, it might be a statewide election as on July 31, but it’s also 159 coordinated elections within each county. Those elections will contain races that may solely pertain to the county or may include races that are regional or at the state or national level as well.
“The ballot in Fulton County needs to look as close as it properly can to the ballot in DeKalb County,” said Michael Barnes, the center’s director. “If you’re going to have a uniform system, not only does the hardware need to be uniform, but also so does the display. … You have a centralized component that’s building the ballots that you see.”
In late 2003, the center began preparing the election databases, also known as ballot building.
An election database maps precincts, races and candidates and provides for the storage of votes and eventual reporting for that election. The ballot is derived from the election database. Months before Election Day, the center begins preparing databases that produce the electronic printed and audio ballots used during an election.
There are specific election board rules that outline such things as how large a candidate’s name can appear on the ballot, the font size and the placement of a candidate’s name.
“By having a centralized building component, you have one spot where you can control that to make sure what’s seen by a voter in Fulton County in display, in receptiveness, in feel, looks the same as it does in Camden County,” Barnes said.
The center builds ballots for 157 of the 159 counties to date, with only Cobb and Richmond counties doing it themselves.
“When we’re doing this in some cases it’s in a time window that’s extremely small,” Barnes said. “The election ended (Tuesday). Voters are anticipating to be voting on a ballot a week from Monday. You have no idea who’s in the runoff. You can’t guess. You have recounts going on. I calculated this morning that out of 159 counties we have 124 counties that have some form of a runoff, so that means we have to prepare 124 databases. Not only do we have to prepare them, they have to be built, they have to be viewed, they have to be checked, and then when we’re finished saying it’s good, they’re only given at that point to the counties for them to proof, because it’s the responsibility of the county to make sure that it’s correct.”
Barnes spent election day on Tuesday entering the office at 6 a.m. and leaving at 3 a.m. Wednesday.
“Counties were forgetting what their password was to sign on to the upload site, or they forget what their supervisor card password is that allows them to shut down the voting machine in order to get the totals off of it,” he said. “Those are the top questions that we’re answering, sort of to help the county … get to their end goal.”
During the presidential preference primary, King and Barnes drove a server down to Muscogee County at midnight after that county’s server failed. The center also does forensic analysis for the Secretary of State’s office for investigations, pulling the logs of the machine to check it against what was reported.
“We’re like ambulance drivers,” King said. “The very best night is when you don’t do anything.”
The center prepares sample ballots for the Secretary of State’s office and has emergency ballot printing capabilities as well.
Another important function of the center is the preservation of institutional knowledge.
“As we’ve gone through different administrations — Cathy Cox, Karen Handel, Brian Kemp and whoever comes down the road — what’s very important is that you preserve that organizational knowledge of how all this works together,” King said. “Often in elected offices there’s turnover for a variety of different reasons, and this is a very stable work environment out here.”