County election officials across Georgia say it’s too late to switch to paper ballots in the upcoming elections, despite warnings that hackers could easily penetrate the state’s antiquated electronic voting system and that Russia could unleash a new wave of disruptive cyberattacks.
U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg is expected to rule any day on whether the state must switch to old-fashioned paper ballots. Her ruling would come in response to a year-old lawsuit by citizen activists. They argue that the state’s current system of relying on electronic voting machines that lack a paper backup is “hopelessly compromised” and paper ballots are necessary to ensure public confidence in the results.
Georgia is just one of many states dealing with the fallout of the U.S. intelligence agencies’ conclusion that Russia worked to influence the 2016 campaign and has compromised — or tried to compromise — state election systems across the country to disrupt the 2018 midterms elections.
But interviews and court statements from Republican and Democratic county officials and from state election officials drew the same response: It’s just too late to make the switch.
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Lawyers for Secretary of State Brian Kemp say things will get chaotic if Totenberg orders a statewide shift to paper. Kemp is the Republican nominee for governor.
“It’s impossible,” said Rinda Wilson, the Republican chairman of the Macon-Bibb County Board of Elections. Anyone who says otherwise, she said, “doesn’t have the faintest idea how the whole system works. You have deadlines, you have early voting ... It would throw the entire election into chaos.”
Such a shift at this stage would cause “significant administrative and financial burden” on Muscogee County, which borders Alabama in central Georgia, said Nancy Boren, its election director.
The county would want more time to train poll workers and educate the public and currently lacks enough scanners to handle all ballots, Boren said.
Last week, Democrats on the elections board in Morgan County, a Republican bastion in central Georgia, sought to capitalize on a vacant seat that briefly gave them the majority. But even as they proposed to dump the electronic voting machines and push the county toward paper ballots that would be read by optical scanners, Republicans filled the vacancy and defeated the motion.
In court statements filed in the suit against Kemp and other state officials, elections directors from several counties said switching to hand-marked paper ballots so late could be prohibitively costly or complex.
Activists’ push for paper has been propelled by security concerns stemming both from a breach in Georgia’s elections system and worries that Russia’ will repeat cyberattacks that interfered with the 2016 elections.
In 2017, Politico reported that a cybersecurity professional named Logan Lamb had been able to gain access to Georgia’s elections servers months before the 2016 election and download personal data of about 6.7 million voters from a statewide voter registration database.
In July, Justice Department Special Counsel Robert Mueller revealed, in an indictment accusing a dozen Russian military intelligence officers of illegally hacking top Democrats, that some of them visited county election websites in Georgia.
The ensuing fury, a threat to Kemp’s election prospects, has fed heated rhetoric from both sides.
But at least one other state made a last-minute change.
After Virginia’s electronic voting machines were decertified in September 2017, elections officials in more than 20 counties and localities acquired and set up a new system in time for that year’s election.
When it comes to making late-stage changes in election procedures, where there’s a will, there’s a way, said David Bjerke, the elections director for Falls Church, Va., a suburb of Washington, D.C.
“Elections officials since 2000 have been learning to roll with the punches,” Bjerke said. “That is just how the election industry works.”
In a sworn court statement, Georgia elections director Chris Harvey said switching to paper this late in the process could have “drastic consequences.”
The state’s 159 counties already use paper ballots and optical scanners for provisional and absentee voting, but the existing scanners are designed to handle only a small volume, Harvey said. He said malfunctions could occur if the machines are overused. Further, state procurement rules that require competitive bidding and a formal process won’t give counties enough time to purchase new scanners.
Using paper ballots in November would add nearly $200,000 in printing costs in Cobb County, wrote its election department director, Janine Eveler, in her court statement.
Eveler said that after talking with the county’s vendor, she realized the ballots may not even arrive on time for early voting, which begins Oct. 15.
Even Democratic-leaning Fulton County, which envelops Atlanta, Chairman Mary Carole Cooney of the Board of Elections said making the switch to paper could have other consequences.
‘I’m just visualizing that we’d have to dismantle our early voting system,” she said.
In Fulton, citizens can vote early at any polling place in the county, Cooney said. for that to continue, she said, county officials would have to make sure that all ballot types were available at every single polling location, a process made easy by the electronic machines.
Other counties fretted about organizing the necessary signage to educate voters on the new system, as well as hiring additional poll workers and reprogramming voter registration management devices.
Their opposition is not unanimous. County boards such as Morgan’s have considered shifting to paper ballots at the behest of local activists, but the secretary of state’s office has said that counties can’t decide to do so themselves.
Georgia law permits the “governing authority of any county or municipality” to “direct the use of optical scanning voting systems for recording and computing the vote,” but in a letter to county elections boards and commissioners, Harvey said that this was superseded by a law since passed that mandated the use of Georgia’s electronice voting machines statewide.
Marilyn Marks, the executive director for the Coalition for Good Governance, a plaintiff in the suit, called this an “illegitimate power grab.”
“Local election boards can declare any machines to be impractical to use,” she said. “This is a local decision, not one controlled by Secretary Kemp, although he is forcefully trying to claim that he has the ultimate authority here.”
No county has made the move to paper, and with August ebbing away, such a move is getting more and more challenged, officials say. But Marks said the state should be prepared, having seen the writing on the wall.
“We told them formally in ... April,” she said. “So they can’t say they were surprised by this.”