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Editorial: A vote for election system upgrades
Georgia’s 15-year-old machines, process are in need of tighter security, paper ballot backup
Early Voting Georgia Albe 1

Anybody who owns a computer or smartphone, which is nearly all of us, is familiar with the frequent software updates that they require. Every few weeks or so, your PC or phone will ask you to approve a series of upgrades to keep everything current, fix various problems (and sometimes break something else), all to manage life in the fast-paced cyber world.

Nothing changes faster than the world of high tech. That’s why, unless you’re in Siberia, you’ll seldom find anyone working on a 15-year-old computer.

Unless you’re casting a ballot in Georgia. That’s how old the state’s touch-screen computer voting machines are, and why some think it’s past time for an upgrade.

With this in mind, voters in several cities in Hall and other North Georgia communities will go to the polls Tuesday to select candidates for mayor, city council and school board posts with the hope those ballots will be counted correctly.

Assuming a reliable ballot count has been a given for U.S. voters, but recent election glitches have created doubt. In 2000, a deadlocked electoral vote for president was held in limbo for weeks while ballots were painstakingly recounted in Florida. Last year, allegations of fraud at the polls was later echoed by concerns Russian hackers tried to influence the election.

Now Georgia voters are left to wonder if the state’s electronic voting system is still as reliable as claimed, and whether recent data breaches are a sign that there may be inherent problems.

Last summer, we learned the state’s voting database stored on a computer server at Kennesaw State University had a security hole for some six months before it was reported and fixed. That exposed the personal data of the state’s 6.7 million voters, including Social Security numbers and passwords of local election officials, to potential hackers.

Amid this investigation, last week it was learned KSU officials cleaned all the data off that server, wiping out possible clues as to how it happened and who was to blame. The Secretary of State elections office originally referred to the erasure as “reckless, inexcusable and inept,” but last week changed direction and called it a routine IT procedure, and said the FBI still has full access to all of the data that was on the server.

Wednesday, the state attorney general’s office recused itself from a lawsuit brought by the Coalition for Good Governance that is seeking to force the state to adopt a paper trail for electronic ballots. So, in an ironic twist, Secretary of State Brian Kemp, a Republican candidate for governor in next year’s election, and other election officials will be represented by the law firm run by Roy Barnes, the state’s last Democratic governor. 

All this cyber drama and espionage raises a valid question state leaders should seriously consider: Is it past due time to update how we cast ballots? Shouldn’t the state consider steps to upgrade and modernize its voting process without being forced to do so by a lawsuit?

For decades, voters went to the polls and cast old-fashioned paper ballots with punch-out slots or something similar. In 2002, the state spent $54 million on the current system of computer touch-screen machines that records ballots on plastic cards. It has been an easy, convenient and efficient way to cast and tally votes. But as the 2000 election showed, there still is a place for a hard-copy ballot when questions arise, though about a quarter of U.S. voters cast ballots without such a backup.

Perhaps we trust the security of the digital universe more than we should. Data breaches against major retailers and, this past summer, Equifax credit records, reveal the threats we face from sinister criminals with laptops. If hackers can access our personal and financial data to wreak havoc on our bank accounts, that same damage done to a local, state or federal election is a chilling notion.

However the election lawsuit plays out, the time is right for state legislators to review options to upgrade the state’s aging electronic voting machines and the security of voter data. They should review what options might be offered for printable ballots that not only give voters hard evidence of their vote but a backup plan to count them if other systems fail. Such a plan is being tested in a pilot program in Rockdale County in this week’s election.

The next step is figuring out how to pay for upgrades that could cost $100 million or more. In a perfect world, lawmakers would create long-term plans for such needs and set aside funds, a hallmark of good business management. In the real world of politics, more immediate concerns usually take precedence, especially in election years. Without such funding already in place, the legislature should discuss such a plan in the next session before the machines and related software become hopelessly outdated for future elections.

Making such a move won’t be cheap or easy, but neither would be invalidating an election because votes couldn’t be counted properly. That is a nightmare scenario that can and should be avoided.

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

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