Georgia is one of just five states that will not use paper ballets in the upcoming midterms, after a judge denied a motion late Monday that would have required the state to move away from its electronic touch screen machines.
In her ruling, U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg pointed to the limited time remaining to switch the state’s election systems ahead of November’s vote, although she said that security concerns are legitimate and warned that “further delay is not tolerable” in “confronting and tackling the challenges before the state’s election balloting system.”
Security experts have called attention to vulnerabilities in Georgia’s electronic voting system in recent years. Shortly before the 2016 election, cybersecurity researcher Logan Lamb discovered that a security hole leaves the state’s online voter records accessible to hackers who could plant malware and potentially rig the vote. Election and computer security experts agree that the best way to secure elections is to ensure that voting machines have paper records to allow for audits of the results.
Since 2002, Georgia has used direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting machines, which do not leave a paper trail for any record that can be audited. Georgia, Delaware, Louisiana, New Jersey, and South Carolina all administer paperless elections, and eight other states use paperless systems in some, but not all counties.
In response to Monday’s ruling, lawyers for Georgia voters said they fear the November election results won’t be legitimate.
“No one will ever know whether the results to come out of the midterm elections in Georgia are actually what the voters intended,” David Cross, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, told ThinkProgress.
“It may very well be that it is, and it may very well be that no one finds evidence of hacking, but everyone is just crossing their fingers and hoping and praying that the folks who actually take their seats come next year are the ones that were intended by the voters. No one will ever know.”
Georgia activists filed suit over their concerns in 2017, claiming the paperless system infringes on their right to vote. In a motion filed in August, they asked Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp (R) to switch the state’s systems before November, arguing that the current system could deprive citizens in the state of their right to vote.
Donna Price, a plaintiff in the lawsuit who started an organization called Georgians for Verified Voting in 2003, said she has grave concerns about the legitimacy of the midterms and compared voting without a paper trail to “going to the bank, handing the teller our money, and being reassured by the teller that it will be securely and correctly deposited.” The bank provides multiple forms of receipt, while Georgia refuses to do the same for its elections.
“The heart of the matter is our right to vote, and [Georgia officials] are responsible for securing that,” she said. “Georgia citizens have every right to clear proof that the 2018 midterm election results are accurate. Vague assurance or ‘trust us’ are not adequate.”
While the judge was sympathetic to the activists’ concerns, she took issue with “the 11th-hour timing of their motions,” and ruled that an order granting voters paper ballots “could just as readily jeopardize the upcoming elections, voter turnout, and the orderly administration of the election.”
Early voting in Georgia begins on October 15, and Judge Totenberg warned that election workers would be unable to handle the added work of switching their systems.
“There is nothing like bureaucratic confusion and long lines to sour a citizen,” she wrote.
While the lawsuit alleges that Kemp has ignored the security concerns, he attempted to address the problem by establishing a commission in April to look into how Georgia can switch to paper ballots before 2020. Cross called that move “just hand-waving,” pointing out that the commission has only met twice and only has one cybersecurity expert on its panel.
In a statement on Tuesday, Kemp said he still plans to move forward with having the commission consider possible fixes.
“With this ruling behind us, we will continue our preparations for a secure, orderly election in November and move forward with [the commission’s] work to responsibly upgrade Georgia’s secure — but aging — voting system,” he said, according to the Washington Post. “As I have said many times over, our state needs a verifiable paper trail, but we cannot make such a dramatic change this election cycle.”
While Monday’s ruling means that no changes will occur before November, the judge left the door open for a ruling on the merits of the issue before 2020. She also recognized the need for a larger conversation about the issues with paperless voting and the politicians who refuse to update their systems.
In her order, Judge Totenberg accused Kemp and his colleagues of having “buried their heads in the sand” on these issues.
Though Kemp will appear on the ballot in November as the Republican candidate for governor, he has not recused himself administering the upcoming election — an issue that is also causing concern among Georgia voters.
“It is difficult to understand how any secretary of state, regardless of party affiliation, could think it’s appropriate to manage the election system for his own election,” Cross said. “Part of the frustration is that the judge pointed out that Kemp has done nothing to address these issues. Maybe if he was focused on his responsibilities as secretary of state instead of running a campaign… maybe he would have had the time to actually do what was needed and secure the election this year.”
Even if Kemp doesn’t act, Cross said the judge’s ruling makes it clear that Georgia’s paperless voting system won’t exist in future elections.
“She sent a very stark ruling to the state and to the counties that come 2020, there will be a new secure system in place, whether they do that on their own or whether she forces that,” he said.