By Tia Lynn Ivey, Managing Editor

The statewide election security debate over voting machines rages on as the Democratic Presidential Primary fast approaches in March of 2020. Morgan County Democrats joined other election security advocate groups to sign a petition requesting new rules for the State Election Board to better ensure free and fair elections. 

The new petition aims to reduce voting lines, protect ballot secrecy and improve security to ward against hacking, technical malfunctions, or other tampering attempts. The petition also calls for the state to adopt the new voting system incrementally. 

“A group of politically diverse organizations has petitioned the State Election Board to adopt a set of four proposed new rules for implementation in 2020 to improve the voting experience and election security of voters,” said Marilyn Marks, director of the Coalition for Good Governance, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that focuses on election transparency and verifiability. 

“Georgians across the political spectrum want to be able to cast their vote with a minimum of hassle, and want to be sure that their votes are counted as cast,” said Jeanne Dufort, vice-chair of the Morgan County Democratic Committee. “Election Boards across the state will welcome these common-sense rules, particularly the flexibility to choose an implementation schedule they can reliably administer.”

In April 2019, Governor Brian Kemp signed House Bill 316 into law, which mandated a new uniform Ballot Marking Device (BMD) voting system be implemented throughout the State of Georgia. The petition was prompted by concerns over Georgia’s new $107 million voting system, which retired outdated and unconstitutional Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) voting machines to implement the Dominion Voting System, which will provide 30,000 new voting machines across Georgia. The new system is a sort of hybrid compromise between electronic touchscreens and paper ballots. The old DRE machines, which were touchscreens, did not provide any paper printout as a secondary record of votes. On the new machines, voters will still select candidates via touchscreen, but after choosing, instead of casting the ballot electronically, voters will press a “print your ballot” button. A printer attached to the machine will print the ballot on a full sheet of paper which voters can review before inserting it into a scanner for tabulation. The paper ballots will be locked away in a ballot box incase they are needed for audits or recounts. Nine counties in Georgia were chosen for a pilot program testing out the new voting system, leaving critics wary, concerned that the new system is still inadequate and fraught with potential for tampering, hacking, and electronic malfunctions. 

“Problems which occurred during the pilot elections testing the new Dominion voting system, debugging and implementation risks of new equipment and software, newly identified security risks, delayed equipment delivery, and the massive training and logistics required before the March Presidential Primaries, motivated the groups to seek election rules to help mitigate anticipated 2020 election difficulties,” said Marks. 

According to a press release from the Coalition for Good Governance, “The growing group of petitioners includes Coalition for Good Governance, the Libertarian Party of Georgia, the Constitution Party of Georgia, both the Morgan and Newton County Democratic Committees, and Georgia Advancing Progress PAC, demonstrating the wide political, as well as non-partisan, spectrum of support for more secure elections that reliably reflect voters’ decisions.”

The four new rules proposed in the petition center around preventing long lines, protecting voter privacy, and election security. 

“Given the highly vulnerable nature of the new electronic poll books as experienced during the pilot elections, and the resulting risks of long lines and confusion, two of the rules are aimed directly at mitigating that risk,” said Marks. 

Those two rules are returning mail-in ballots at polling places and mandating paper poll book back-ups. 

According to the coalition, returning mail-in ballots to polling places would allow “voters to have their mail-in absentee ballots accepted at early voting locations and at their precinct on Election Day, eliminating risks of mail delivery or ballot rejection for minor discrepancies.” Mandating paper pollbook backups would require an updated printed poll book in all precincts on Election Day, to be used in case of electronic pollbook discrepancies or malfunction. “This reduces unnecessary provisional ballot issuance and polling place confusion from errors in e-pollbooks,” explained Marks. 

The petition also calls for protecting ballot secrecy. 

“The new voting system uses a large touchscreen with large fonts, and displays the voter’s choices in a manner that permits poll workers, other voters, and poll watchers to discern how a voter is voting. The improper loss of ballot secrecy must be immediately remedied,” said Marks. 

The petition “affirms the voters’ rights to an absolutely secret ballot by protecting ballot secrecy and allow public observation.” 

The petition also calls for a staggered implementation of new voting equipment. 

“Equipment failures during the November pilots, extensive training requirements, and delays delivering new equipment to counties are reducing confidence that the new Dominion system will be debugged, installed and fully ready for statewide use during the March Presidential Preferential Primary,” said Marks. “Petitioners are asking the State Election Board to adopt a flexible rule allowing an incremental voting system conversion to ensure an orderly transition. The Rule would permit each county to choose the extent of system conversion that they could meet with confidence, rather than requiring a complete immediate conversion to the numerous components required by the fully implemented Dominion BMD system.” 

These proposals are expected to be considered at the Georgia State Election Board’s December 17 meeting. 

“These simple, low-cost enhancements create higher voter confidence in the process, particularly when voters can deliver their hand-marked paper ballot, voted at home and accepted at their polling place, as proposed in Rule 1,” said Marks. “And those mail ballot voters should be able to avoid lines of voters waiting to use the voting machines.”

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