Activists raise concerns about privacy of voting machines

ATLANTA (AP) — Election integrity activists are raising concerns about Georgia’s new voting machines, saying the large, bright, vertical touchscreens allow other people in the room to see a voter’s selections in violation of ballot secrecy provisions in state law.

In a petition filed Monday in Sumter County Superior Court against the five members of the county election board, the activists ask the court to order the board to have voters use hand-marked paper ballots rather than the touchscreen voting machines. They’ve asked for an emergency hearing.

The need for such an order is urgent, the petition says, because Sumter County is part of a state Senate district in which the runoff for a special election is set for March 3 and early voting in that contest began Monday. A clear violation of voters’ constitutional right to a secret ballot could create “a substantial risk that the results of this special election will be declared null and void,” the petition says.

The county attorney did not immediately respond to a phone call seeking comment. Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs said in a text message the petition is a “silly and desperate attempt to interfere with Georgia elections.”

The secretary of state’s office, which oversees elections, recently sent precinct layout diagrams to county election officials to help with privacy concerns. An “ineffective/bad” layout shows machines facing the center of the room so voters have their backs to people waiting to vote, while two layouts labeled “effective/preferred” show voting machines arranged so voters’ backs face a wall.

In a message to county election officials, Chris Harvey, the director of the agency’s elections division, said the diagrams “illustrate potential problems and solutions to securing voter privacy.”

“This is based on reported concerns and our own observations,” he wrote.

The petition says those layouts are still problematic because they don’t completely protect ballots from the view of poll workers and other voters and don’t allow poll workers to see the machines to prevent tampering as required by law.

Georgia lawmakers last year passed a law providing for a new voting system and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in July awarded a contract for the new system to Dominion Voting Systems.

The new system replaces the outdated paperless touchscreen machines and election management system the state had been using since 2002. The new touchscreen voting machines are connected to printers that produce a paper ballot that voters feed into a scanner that reads and tallies the votes.

Though the members of the Sumter County Board of Elections didn’t choose the new machines, they have the duty and ability to “remedy the constitutional violation” caused by the machines’ big screens, the petition says. Georgia law provides for the use of hand-marked paper ballots if using the electronic machines becomes “impossible or impracticable.”

Hand-marked paper ballots are already used for mail-in and provisional voting, so election officials already have the training and supplies to switch to that method for all voters, the petition argues.

The petition was filed by the Coalition for Good Governance, an election integrity group, and three individual Georgia voters who are members of the group.

This is not the first legal action filed by the coalition seeking to force Georgia election officials to use hand-marked paper ballots. The group filed a federal lawsuit in 2017 alleging the old machines and election management system were not secure and were vulnerable to hacking. The focus of that legal action has now shifted to the new system and remains pending.

The group argues the new system has many of the same security vulnerabilities as the old system. Additionally, the ballots printed by the new machines include a human-readable summary and a bar code that is read by the scanner to tally the votes, but voters can’t read the bar code and can’t be sure it accurately reflects their selections, the group says.