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Georgia buys new voting machines amid challenge to old ones
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Poll officers get voting machines set up the Gainesville I voting precinct Monday, Nov. 5, 2018 at First Baptist Church for local elections. - photo by Scott Rogers

ATLANTA (AP) — Despite legal challenges, Georgia is moving ahead with the purchase of a new $106 million voting system with touchscreen computers that print a paper record, the secretary of state announced Monday.

The new machines will replace Georgia's current touchscreen voting machines, which have been in use since 2002 and offer no verifiable paper trail.

Cybersecurity experts and election integrity activists warn that the new machines suffer from many of the same problems as the old ones, including being vulnerable to hacking, and advocate for a system using hand marked paper ballots.

The purchase comes months after Republican Gov. Brian Kemp won a contentious race against Democrat Stacey Abrams, and as the state faces several lawsuits over its handling of elections.

In one, U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg is weighing whether to order the state to immediately abandon its outdated voting machines in favor of an interim solution for this fall's special and municipal elections.

Totenberg said the state had allowed its voting system to become "way too old and archaic" and now has a deep hole to dig out of to ensure that the constitutional right to vote is protected.

Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger's office says the new machines will be in place for Georgia's presidential primaries on March 24, leaving officials roughly eight months to implement the system throughout 159 counties.

Lori Wurtz, Hall County’s elections director, said she supports the new system.

“We believe the new voting machines will be a welcomed enhancement to the voters of Hall County. The new system produces a paper ballot for auditing purposes, which will create an added level of security for our voters,” she said. “We will continue to provide voters with top-notch service when they cast their ballots in Hall County.”

Raffensperger selected Dominion Voting Systems as the state's new vendor after a competitive bidding process. Dominion has also implemented elections systems in other states, including Louisiana, Nevada and New York.

Legislation passed by the Georgia General Assembly this year and signed into law by Kemp laid out specifications. It called for a system where voters make their selections on an electronic touchscreen, called a ballot marking device, which prints a paper record of a voter's selections. The voter can then review their selections on the printout before it is scanned and tabulated.

All of Hall County’s delegation supported the law.

“There’s no stray pencil marks, there’s no erasures, there’s no X’s or O’s or anything that would confuse and invalidate a ballot,” State Rep. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville, said in February. “And once it comes out of the machine with a marked ballot, you get to review that ballot.”

And State Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, said he would like to see verifiable paper ballots, rather than just printed ones with a barcode, although he liked the idea of marking ballots with a machine.

“I want it to print out my ballot and be able to see what I voted for, just like it shows up on the screen at the end of the process today,” Miller said in February.

Wenke Lee unsuccessfully lobbied for a system using hand marked paper ballots instead. He's a professor of computer science at Georgia Tech and was the lone cyber expert on the panel that provided recommendations to the legislature. He argues that ballot marking devices are susceptible to hacking and that voters aren't capable of — and likely won't take the time to — properly review their paper printout for errors.

"It's not the outcome I was hoping for," Lee said in a recent interview. "With the way technology keeps changing, keeps improving, and also the threat landscape keeps changing, I think it's a pretty dumb idea to sink a huge amount of money into a system and then be stuck with it for like 15 years."

Several county elections officials testified this year that the new machines would be the easiest to train for and administer, because they are similar to the current touchscreens. The new voting machines can also accommodate all Georgians, including those with disabilities, under one common system.

"Elections security is my top priority," Raffensperger said in a statement Monday. "We look forward to working with national and local elections security experts to institute best practices and continue to safeguard all aspects of physical and cyber-security in an ever-changing threat environment."

According to videos available on the Secretary of State website, voters will first check in with a poll worker using a touchscreen tablet. The poll worker will verify the voter’s eligibility, then the voter will provide their signature on the tablet and receive an encoded “smartcard” to be inserted into the voting machine. 

The voter will then insert the smartcard into the voting machine, select their options and print a paper ballot that will show their selections. The voter will verify their choices, then put the printed ballot into an optical scanner to be counted.

The machines will not connect to the internet, which the Secretary of State’s office says is similar to current machines and increases security. Also, according to the Secretary of State’s office, the state can make scanned images of all ballots cast in statewide elections available, so any member of the public could do his or her own count.

Dominion was one of three companies to make an offer for the new system. The selection committee included county elections directors, the state’s chief technology officer and Georgia’s Deputy Secretary of State.

This report has been updated from its original version. Reporter Megan Reed contributed.

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