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.