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Analysis

Georgia Continues to Tempt Fate This Election Season

If voting technology fails on Election Day, the state doesn’t have enough backup paper ballots to keep voting lines moving.

October 16, 2020

Elec­tions in Geor­gia have been a subject of contro­versy for years, ranging from actual data breaches at statewide elec­tion part­ner Kennesaw State Univer­sity to false alleg­a­tions of a polit­ical party attempt­ing to hack the voter regis­tra­tion system. This summer, the state’s rushed and bumpy rollout of a new statewide voting system culmin­ated in a chaotic June primary election marred by undelivered absentee ballots, long lines at polling places due to prob­lems with elec­tronic poll books, and innu­mer­able human errors due to inad­equate poll worker train­ing.

This week, with the start of early voting for the general elec­tion, condi­tions appear mixed. Enthu­si­astic voter turnout, combined with band­width prob­lems in the state’s online check-in system, led to long lines in some early voting loca­tions, with some voters wait­ing 8 hours to cast their ballot.

And with the elec­tion already under­way, Geor­gia faces yet another tech­nical chal­lenge fraught with risk. During normal pre-elec­tion test­ing in Septem­ber, elec­tion offi­cials found a soft­ware defect that caused a column of candid­ates in the 21-person U.S. Senate special election to disap­pear from the touch­screen, poten­tially leav­ing voters unaware of all their choices.

In prepar­a­tion for the start of early voting, Geor­gi­a’s 159 counties began installing updated soft­ware on approx­im­ately 34,000 ballot mark­ing devices to fix the prob­lem. But installing new and largely untested soft­ware this close to the elec­tion is risky busi­ness, even if the state is trying to make sure it’s not depriving voters of their right to vote for all eligible candid­ates. In response to these worries, the secret­ary of state’s office said that activ­ists are making a “moun­tain out of a mole­hill.”

But the risks are real.

The rushed time­frame severely under­cut the abil­ity of the state’s third-party test­ing lab to conduct a proper review of the modi­fied voting machine soft­ware or to perform adequate test­ing of updated voting machines on a large scale. Yet Secret­ary of State Brad Raffen­sper­ger barreled ahead with the distri­bu­tion of updated soft­ware to the counties anyway.

Geor­gia elec­tion offi­cials are already managing a massive influx of absentee ballot requests while obtain­ing personal protect­ive equip­ment for poll work­ers and setting up larger venues for in-person voting. Now they must also find the time and staff­ing resources to update soft­ware and test each and every voting machine. Fulton County alone had approx­im­ately 3,700 voting machines to update and test.

Logic and accur­acy test­ing are crit­ical processes to ensure that voting machines are prop­erly display­ing choices and mark­ing prin­ted ballots for every candid­ate, in every race. Even before the latest snafu, some have noted that the secret­ary of state’s proced­ures for logic and accur­acy test­ing are confus­ing, because they do not make clear that every choice in every race should be tested on every machine. If mistakes are made during the updates and glitches go undis­covered, machines may not work prop­erly, and then voters will pay the price.

In short, installing new soft­ware on 34,000 machines poses very real risks that should not be dismissed.

On the other hand, Raffen­sper­ger argued, in a lawsuit brought by groups seek­ing to move to a system of hand­marked paper ballots, that it’s too late to make that change as well. The judge in that case agreed that late changes would be disrupt­ive, while also criti­ciz­ing the state and its voting system vendor for a rocky imple­ment­a­tion. She poin­ted out that in “a rational world, the parties’ repres­ent­at­ives would sit down and discuss these matters together to discuss altern­at­ive remedial courses of action.”

Indeed, there is a comprom­ise that state and local offi­cials can embrace with urgency. In each polling place, the state must provide enough emer­gency backup paper ballots for at least three hours of voting during the peak turnout time. This way, if poll work­ers or voters discover prob­lems with any machines, offi­cials will have bought them­selves enough time to replace malfunc­tion­ing machines by tempor­ar­ily switch­ing to using paper ballots to keep lines moving and to ensure voters are able to fully and confid­ently cast their votes.

Geor­gia regu­la­tions already require keep­ing emer­gency paper ballots on hand as well as config­ur­ing polling place scan­ners to accept both machine-prin­ted ballots and emer­gency ballots. The regu­la­tions mention a bare minimum amount equal to 10 percent of all registered voters. However, this is simply insuf­fi­cient to cover three hours of voting on Elec­tion Day. The lines we saw this week during early voting in Geor­gia confirm what was already known: Novem­ber’s elec­tions are likely to see historic turnout.

Backup ballots are neces­sary, not only in response to machine fail­ures, but also for provi­sional voting — when voters find them­selves in the wrong polling place, or when they’ve reques­ted an absentee ballot but wish to vote in person and a poll manager isn’t avail­able to help. To cover all these scen­arios, Geor­gia elec­tion offi­cials should supply Elec­tion Day polling places with enough pre-prin­ted ballots — and provi­sional ballot envel­opes — for 40 percent of registered voters. And they should provide at least some backup supplies at early voting sites too.

Many voters are will­ing to stand in hours-long lines to exer­cise their right to vote this Novem­ber. But stand­ing in a long line to vote should never be required, and it’s espe­cially diffi­cult for many who have already sacri­ficed so much during this pandemic, like parents who work fixed hours and have chil­dren to care for. In these final weeks before Elec­tion Day, offi­cials can mitig­ate the risks of this new soft­ware update and prevent voters from being disen­fran­chised, without upend­ing estab­lished proced­ures.

Geor­gia must deploy suffi­cient backup paper ballots to all polling places before it’s too late.

Edward Perez is an expert in elec­tion tech­no­logy and elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion. He is currently global director of tech­no­logy devel­op­ment at the OSET Insti­tute, a non-partisan, nonprofit engaged in elec­tion infra­struc­ture research and tech­no­logy devel­op­ment.