There’s a chance Georgians may be casting their votes into the darkness this year for the last time.
The push has increased from several groups for the state to replace its 16-year-old electronic voting machines, both because of their age and the need to develop a “paper trail” verification in case of recounts or allegations of voting irregularities.
Many parts of the country are making such a switch, concerned that electronic machines don’t display voters’ preference clearly, and due to increased worries hackers could penetrate election office servers. After attempts by Russian operatives to do just that in 2016, the desire to turn back the clock to the days of paper ballots has gained momentum.
Those who defend the current system, which until this week included Secretary of State Brian Kemp, claim the machines are safe and reliable and point out that no hackers have successfully breached any U.S. voting system. Which is true, but lacks one qualifying word: Yet.
Georgia’s voter database has suffered a few scares. In 2015, the elections office inadvertently released Social Security numbers and other identifying information of millions of voters, which Kemp blamed on a clerical error. Last year, a security expert found a security hole in the office servers kept at Kennesaw State University that wasn’t fixed for months, exposing personal data for 6.7 million voters. When an investigation was launched, someone at KSU wiped the servers clean, removing any trail of accountability, yet another “clerical error.”
Though neither these glitches nor the 2016 Russian hacking attempts resulted in data being stolen or ballots compromised, at least that we know of, it’s clear any system’s incremental failure could result in a disastrous breach. Computer criminals are persistent, and the chance any could find their way into an election database and install a virus to alter results is a frightening scenario.
Even if you believe the current system to be adequate, it’s been in place for 16 years and aging itself into obsolescence. The current machines run an antiquated version of Windows software and need to be replaced anyway, so best to do so with the best system now rather than face another upgrade in a few years. That would be one that allows voters to see tangible evidence of their vote with paper ballots that can settle any discrepancies. Such a system was used on a trial basis last fall in Rockdale County and received good response.
Doing so will not be cheap. A switch to paper-only voting would be the least expensive option, but touch-screen machines voters prefer that also produce paper ballots could run more than $100 million. The federal government has money set aside to help states make such a transition, but would only chip in about $10 million for Georgia’s move.
But the longer the state waits, the higher the cost will run. You can’t put off fixing a leaky roof forever.
Is such an investment worth it? Ask yourself: When you pop that little plastic card out after you vote, do you know what’s encrypted on it? Or would you like to look at a piece of paper that accurately reflects your choices and slip that into the ballot box instead?
Other states are getting on board with the retro approach, even as nearly 1 in 5 American voters will cast ballots this year without a paper record. Virginia, Louisiana and Kentucky are among states looking to upgrade to printed ballots.
After defending the machines and his office’s handling of election data, Kemp recently decided to create a commission to consider replacement options; it meets next week for the first time. Though nothing would be in place for this year’s statewide elections, for which he is on the ballot for governor, he has decided to join those seeking a better way. If nothing else, he may be looking to blunt criticism of his office’s shortcomings during what looms as a tight runoff election with Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle.
The commission may settle on a type of machine favored and recommend it to the state legislature to consider for next year’s session. Even if it passes, getting machines purchased and in place for the 2020 election might be a tight turnaround.
Of all the public needs taxes pay for, this is near the top of the list. Trust in our election system, and securing it from tampering or mistakes, is a basic need in a democracy. The federal government should designate more money for states that need upgrades, and the states themselves should consider creative one-time funding methods to pay for them.
Alex Halderman, a voting machine expert and director of the University of Michigan’s Center for Computer Security and Society, summed it up as so: “In the current system, after the election, if people worry it has been hacked, the best officials can do is say, ‘Trust us.’”
But as Ronald Reagan famously said: Trust ... but verify. An elections paper trail would offer that.
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