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Nonprofit Sues Georgia, Seeking to Prevent Voting on All-Electric Systems in November

The state is one of five that currently rely on an all-electronic voting system with no paper ballot backup to verify the vote, but some of these states are changing their ways.

Georgia’s Secretary of State office is facing a lawsuit over its use of an all-electronic voting system with no paper ballot verification backups, one of five states that currently use such a system.

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia is holding proceedings for Donna Curling v. Brian Kemp. Plaintiff attorney David Cross said his clients are asking the judge for a preliminary injunction to stop Secretary of State Brian Kemp from using Georgia’s current all-electronic voting system in the November elections.

The lawsuit stems from the alleged 2016 discovery of cybersecurity vulnerabilities in Georgia’s Direct Recording Equipment (DRE) voting system. The plaintiffs claim that the Secretary of State’s ignored repeated warnings from cybersecurity experts and told them, in essence, to go away, according to a copy of the amended complaint. The complaint asserted that there is an “incompatibility between the functioning of the current electronic voting system and the voters’ right to cast a secret ballot and have that vote accurately counted."

The group behind the report is the Coalition for Good Governance, a North Carolina-based nonprofit that describes itself as a defender of individual rights, especially those in the First Amendment.

Cybersecurity researchers were able to peer into personal information submitted by Georgia voters, as well as access key components of the state’s electronic election system without entering a password, the complaint alleges.

“The central server was wide open for anyone to enter the system and readily access personal data of Georgia voters," the complaint alleges. "Furthermore, such an intruder could also easily manipulate the server’s data and voter registration software, and thereby render legitimate voters ineligible, add fictitious voters to the list, and switch votes so as to increase the numbers for the candidate of the intruder’s choosing."

The complaint touts the benefits of using modern balloting equipment that simultaneously issues a paper version of the ballot results as a voter is entering their electronic vote, which aids in the verification of election results in an audit.

“We hope to get a preliminary injunction in early to mid-September, so we would have 30 days before the early voting takes place,” Cross told Government Technology. “Then there would be enough time to have everyone use [paper] absentee ballot to cast their vote for early votes and at the polls.”

Rep. Hank Johnson, a Democrat representing Georgia's Fourth District, has been pushing for years to get Congress to outlaw Internet-connected voting machines and require equipment to have a paper trail.

The Secretary of State's office referred interview requests to its attorney, John Salter, but he did not immediately respond to emails and phone calls.

The U.S. Senate Weighs in

Following the controversy over the 2016 U.S. elections and evidence that Russian actors attempted to target states’ election infrastructure, the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence issued several recommendations to guard against hostile nation states and safeguard the nation’s democracy. Its recommendations for voting systems were, verbatim:

  • States should rapidly replace outdated and vulnerable voting systems. At a minimum, any machine purchased going forward should have a voter-verified paper trail and no Wi-Fi capability. If use of paper ballots becomes more widespread, election officials should re-examine current practices for securing the chain of custody of all paper ballots and verify no opportunities exist for the introduction of fraudulent votes.
  • States should consider implementing more widespread, statistically sound audits of election results. 
  • Department of Homeland Security should work with vendors to educate them about the vulnerabilities of both the machines and the supply chains.

5 States Use All-Electronic Voting Systems

In addition to Georgia, four other states use electronic voting systems without any paper ballot backup, according to Cross and several state spokespeople: Delaware, New Jersey, South Carolina, and Louisiana.

However, in the case of South Carolina and Louisiana, efforts are currently underway to set up capabilities to verify votes with paper ballots.

In South Carolina, which has voting equipment that dates back to 2004, the state is seeking funding to procure a new statewide voting system and hopes to have one in place before the 2020 general election, Chris Whitmire, a spokesperson for the South Carolina State Election Commission, told Government Technology.

Although a new voting system would run South Carolina an estimated $50 million, Whitmire said the state legislature and federal government are contributing $17 million toward that cost.

Louisiana, meanwhile, expects to replace some of its older voting machines in a couple of months with modern ones that will leave a voter-verified paper trail, said Meg Sunstrom, press secretary for Louisiana Secretary of State Tom Schedler.

Georgia’s SB-403 died in the state legislature in March, Cross said, noting it would have required the use of a combination of electronic and paper ballots. 

“Secretary of State Kemp has a commission looking at this issue [of paper ballots] now, but I think it’s just window dressing,” Cross says.