By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Editorial: Paper ballots a blast from the voting past
Push to change now is premature but still worthy of consideration in the long run
03162018 VOTING

In a time where technology takes over all aspects of life — coffee delivered by drones, robots who flirt and phones that track our every move — some in our state want to go back to the old-school method of voting.

A lawsuit now playing out over the state’s electronic voting machines pits the modern day Luddites of the Coalition for Good Government vs. the Secretary of State’s office. The coalition claims Georgia’s touch-screen voting machines are susceptible to tampering from hackers and need to be abandoned in favor of paper ballots. As in this year, now.

The state already is looking into how to replace its 16-year old machines and their antiquated software, but most suggestions tend toward newer, better technology. The sticking point is finding machines that produce readable paper ballots to verify votes cast.

Such a move won’t be cheap, and could cost up to $100 million depending on the machines used. The state legislature is expected to discuss it in the next session.

The coalition’s suit seeks to force the state’s hand earlier, starting with the November elections. The group wants Georgia to scrap its 27,000 machines now, before replacements have been settled upon, and vote this fall with pen and paper.

That’s right: Paper ballots marked with ink. Remember those?

The state argues such a move this close to the fall race would lead to chaos, longer wait times, suppressed turnout, voter confusion and additional costs up to $13.4 million. Attorneys for the coalition called that “utterly ridiculous.”

Some of it seems to be. We’re not sure why people would be confused by printed names on a ballot, and it’s hard to see how it would suppress turnout. As for wait times, as it is now voters must stand in line until a voting machine is available. With paper ballots, in theory, all you need is a flat surface; set out a bunch of tables in the school cafeteria and let everyone go to town.

But what seems simple often isn’t, and we see the state’s point that switching procedures this close to an election would be difficult.

First, there is the printing of ballots for 6.7 million registered voters. That in itself won’t come cheap, though the state does have access to $10 million in federal grant money to help with its transition.

The bigger issue is finding a way to read and record paper ballots. Optional scanner systems are used in many states and cost about $5,000 each. Yet you only need one per precinct to read votes, as opposed to a dozen or more touch-screen devices worth $2,000 to $3,000 apiece.

The technology is similar to how school exams are graded; voters fill in a bubble next to a candidate’s name and a machine reads it. About half of voting precincts in the nation use such a system, while many others use touch-screen machines that print ballots. Georgia is one of only five states with no paper trail at all, and most are looking to change.

The chief worry is computer hackers. Sinister operatives, many from Russia, attempted to bust into election servers in the last election and are still trying. It may be just a matter of time before they succeed. Recent incidents in Georgia that left voter data potentially exposed increased those fears.

Voting machines themselves are not connected directly to the internet and are not subject to hacking. The fear is that software stored on election office servers could be vulnerable to a virus to rig voter tallies. University of Michigan computer science expert Alex Halderman has demonstrated how hacking central election office computers could be used to alter vote totals.

Of course, even paper ballots have downsides. There can be problems interpreting and recording votes when ballots are not marked clearly, smudged, torn or otherwise illegible. History also tells of occasions when “missing” or phantom ballots would swing vote totals. As long as there are crooks, someone will devise ways to steal an election.

Secretary of State Brian Kemp, on the ballot himself this fall for governor, says the current system is safe, and only needs to be replaced because of the age of the equipment. Yet along with the data breaches, charges of voter suppression and last week’s dust-up over the proposed closing of precincts in a poor South Georgia county, his office has been under the gun frequently over voting policy, and he faced a barrage of criticism for his role during the Republican primary. Some have suggested he resign his current post while seeking another office.

Yet if the judge rules for paper ballots, it would push Kemp’s office to the limit by trashing the current voting system two months before an election. Without solid proof hacking has occurred, the prudent move would be to review all options and select the best system long term. That needs to include a way for voters to see their vote on a solid piece of paper — not an indecipherable bar code — and drop it into a secure box. This also gives election officials an option for a hard recount in a close election, something that does not now exist. For Georgia to recount ballots now merely means inputting the same data to see if anything changes.

Perhaps the state could offer a compromise by allowing some counties or precincts to sample different voting procedures — paper and touch screens with printouts — to get a sense of what works best. This was done in Rockdale County in the primary and could be expanded.

Trying to stay one step ahead of cybercriminals and shady regimes is an exhausting modern task for individuals, businesses and governments. Rather than ramp up technology, maybe the answer is to take a giant step backward to old ways that mostly functioned well.

And who knows? If this anti-tech idea catches on, cord-bound, rotary dial telephones could be prime for a comeback as well.

Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a letter to the editor; you can use this form or send email to The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Executive Editor Keith Albertson and Director of Content Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.