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Georgia county punished for ditching voting machines

March 11, 2020 GMT
In this Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019 photo, a touchscreen voting machine and printer are seen in a voting booth, in Paulding, Ga. Georgia's state election board has scheduled an emergency hearing Wednesday, March 11, 2020, to determine whether a county election board violated state laws and election rules when it voted to use hand-marked paper ballots instead of the state's new voting machines for the presidential primary. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)
In this Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019 photo, a touchscreen voting machine and printer are seen in a voting booth, in Paulding, Ga. Georgia's state election board has scheduled an emergency hearing Wednesday, March 11, 2020, to determine whether a county election board violated state laws and election rules when it voted to use hand-marked paper ballots instead of the state's new voting machines for the presidential primary. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

ATHENS, Ga. (AP) — Georgia’s State Election Board voted on Wednesday to punish election officials in one county for their decision not to use the state’s new voting machines for the presidential primary, and it ordered them to immediately start using the machines again.

The Athens-Clarke County Board of Elections voted 3-2 last week to sideline the new machines in favor of hand-marked paper ballots, citing concerns over protecting ballot secrecy when using the machines with large, bright touchscreens that sit upright.

Board Chairman Jesse Evans said it was “impracticable” when using the new machines to protect ballot secrecy and allow sufficient monitoring to prevent tampering as required by state law.

The State Election Board, chaired by Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, unanimously ordered the county to cease and desist and to pay a fine of $2,500 for investigative costs, plus $5,000 a day until the machines are back in place.

County elections director Charlotte Sosebee said she could have the machines back up by Thursday for a continuation of early voting.

Evans said he was disappointed with the state board’s decision and that he would talk to the board and its attorneys to determine next steps.

The March 24 presidential primaries mark the first statewide test for Georgia’s new $103 million voting system, which combines electronic touchscreens with printed ballots that are tallied by a scanner.

Athens, about 70 miles (113 kilometers) east of Atlanta, is home to the University of Georgia, and surrounding Clarke County represents about 1% of the state’s registered active voters, according to voter numbers on the secretary of state’s website.

Ryan Germany, the general counsel for the secretary of state’s office, noted during the hearing that Georgia law requires the new voting equipment to be used in all 159 counties. He said the section of the law that allows county election officials to substitute paper ballots is an emergency provision that allows some flexibility but doesn’t override the law.

Bryan Sells, a lawyer for the county board, said it wasn’t possible in some places for the county to provide enough machines while also protecting ballot secrecy, and it was too close to the March 24 primary to switch polling locations. That meant using the machines was not feasible in certain situations, he said.

The secretary of state’s office in mid-February sent sample layouts to county election officials showing them how to arrange the voting machines to address ballot secrecy concerns. They show machines turned so voters’ backs face a wall or other voters’ backs.

Sosebee said she brought the sample layouts to the county board meeting last week and told board members the layouts would work in all of the county’s polling places. She also said that during two days of early voting before the board-mandated switch to paper ballots, about 500 people voted on the new voting machines and none raised ballot secrecy concerns.

But two county residents who voted during those days told the board that if there had been other voters there with them, it would have been easy to see their ballots.

Evans said that during a visit to the polls during early voting, he could clearly see a voting machine screen while talking with elections office staff.

Evans said he had yet to see detailed, to-scale diagrams of the county’s election day polling places with configurations that meet three requirements of state law: one machine for every 250 registered voters, protection of ballot secrecy and ability of poll workers to monitor the machines during voting.