The General Assembly has a priority before it to fix Georgia’s outdated voting system and make it as secure as possible from the growing threat of cyberattacks that could affect the outcome of elections.
The starting point for legislators is a request for $150 million by Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger for a new system to be fully operational before the elections of November 2020. As for what system will be selected, a study commission has recommended new ballot-marking machines with an electronic touch screen for casting votes as opposed to hand-marked paper ballots read by an optical scanner. The current system relies on ballot-marking devices and has been in use since 2002.
Raffensperger in presenting his budget to lawmakers last week indicated he favored ballot-marking devices for “a more accurate result” with the ability “to move people through the lines faster … so you don’t have to cipher out what someone meant with stray marks.” This is a legitimate concern, especially in view of the still-simmering resentment among Democrats over what they claimed was fraud and “voter suppression” in the hotly contested governor’s race won by Republican Brian Kemp, then secretary of state with administrative oversight of elections. Kemp refuted the charges leveled by Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams and supporters. It’s worth noting that long before the election, Kemp in April 2018 created the study commission to review the state’s voting system and recommend improvements.
So then, what is the best voting system for Georgia?
In its report, the study commission — SAFE, for Secure, Accessible & Fair Elections — said its recommendations tracked “best practices from experts in election administration while keeping in mind circumstances that are unique to Georgia.” The commission said based on the state’s history of using direct recording electronic (DRE) vote casting devices and the familiarity of voters and election officials with this system, “Georgia should move to a primarily ballot-marking device with verifiable paper ballots” for a new system. Another consideration: “Moving from one form of touchscreen voting to another will be an easier transition for Georgia voters than it would be to move to hand-marked paper ballots.”
The SAFE commission’s report was approved by an overwhelming majority, 13-3, with the minority view well-stated by cybersecurity expert, Dr. Wenke Lee, professor of computer science at Georgia Tech. He favored hand-marked paper ballots as more secure than ballots marked with voting machines — a view advocated by 24 other computer scientists at universities, laboratories, industry and nonpartisan Verified Voting, Lee noted. He insisted that the most cutting-edge technology may not be right for current cybersecurity threats. Paper, he recently wrote, “provides the trail of evidence for post-election audits to determine if software caused an error in election outcomes and does so without re-running an entire election.”
Which method is better? That has to be decided by our legislators. But amid the concern over security of our voting system, the good news noted by the commission is that Georgia currently has seven million registered voters, a number that “has increased dramatically since the implementation of online voter registration in 2014” — on Brian Kemp’s watch as secretary of state — and introduction of voter registration at the Department of Driver Services in September 2016. Consequently, the number of registered voters has increased at a faster rate than has the population.
The General Assembly should explore all options whether or not they were considered by the SAFE commission. The challenge is to come up with the best possible solution for fixing Georgia’s voting system. Our lawmakers must give their best, non-partisan efforts to doing this job – and doing it right for the voters of Georgia.