ATLANTA (CN) — A federal judge will decide within days whether to force Georgia to abandon its electronic voting machines ahead of the November election in favor of paper ballots.
U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg called an emergency hearing Wednesday to determine whether an ongoing lawsuit alleging that Georgia’s electronic voting machines are susceptible to “malicious manipulation” will end with Georgians casting their votes using paper ballots instead of touchscreen voting machines.
The Coalition for Good Governance claims in their lawsuit that Georgia’s 27,000 direct-recording electronic voting machines are vulnerable to hacking and are prohibitively difficult to secure since they lack a physical paper trail backup.
Totenberg said she will decide whether to issue a preliminary injunction forcing the switch to paper ballots Friday or Monday.
During Wednesday’s day-long hearing, attorneys for Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp argued that a switch to paper ballots mere weeks before early voting is scheduled to begin would cause chaos and would erode voter confidence in Georgia’s electoral system.
Kemp, a Republican, is currently campaigning against Democrat Stacey Abrams to win the race for Georgia governor.
Attorneys for Kemp argued that the plaintiffs have no legitimate standing to request the injunction since there is no evidence that Georgia’s election results have been tampered with or that the state’s electoral system has been compromised by hackers.
“There is no issue to the plaintiffs in this room. Plaintiffs may not manufacture standing by sitting on the train tracks and waiting for a train to hit them. Plaintiffs currently have no injury … If they want a paper ballot, they can get one. You can’t manufacture standing based on fears of hypothetical harm,” attorney John Salter, Jr. argued on behalf of the state.
“They are starting this court down a road to leave us without a system that works in November,” Salter said.
But Totenberg expressed concerns to the packed courtroom.
“The reality is, times change. We are in a rapidly changing time as to what it means to have a system that is likely to be or have been hacked. [It’s] different than what was in front of us in 2017,” Totenberg said.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs argued that the state hasn’t done enough to ensure the integrity of Georgia’s electoral system.
“The Secretary of State has literally done nothing,” attorney David Cross said.
“Although defendants had a chance to reassure voters that the system has not been compromised, it’s been crickets. This all means the right to vote is illusory. It’s akin to whispering your vote to someone behind a curtain and hoping it’s recorded. Defendants never argue the system is secure. They only attack our proposed relief,” Cross continued.
If the plaintiffs’ motion is granted, DRE machines will not be used during the November election or the December runoff election. The machines will be replaced with paper ballots which will be scanned using AccuVote optical scanners. The scanners are currently used to scan absentee ballots.
“Georgia has the resources [to do this],” attorney Robert Manoso argued on behalf of the plaintiffs. “Optical scanners are available and procedures are in place … The biggest Georgia counties have not even begun training election officials yet. There may be some added cost, but any potential burden to the state is outweighed by the harm to plaintiffs.”
But the state argued that the enormous increase in paper ballots would outpace Georgia’s optical scanners.
“We would go from 10 percent paper ballots to 90 percent. Georgia has 800 machines for millions of ballots. It’s not enough and there’s not enough time to get more machines,” Salter said.
Cross countered Salter’s argument in rebuttal, arguing that the state is obligated to prepare to handle paper ballots even if DRE machines are available.
“What if every voter votes with absentee ballots because they don’t trust DREs? [The state] needs to anticipate more requests for absentee ballots regardless,” Cross said.
The plaintiffs attempted to bolster their argument that Georgia’s DRE machines could be susceptible to hacking by calling Professor Alex Halderman, a professor of computer science at the University of Michigan College of Engineering and director of the Center for Computer Security & Society, to demonstrate how malicious software could be spread to a DRE machine through an infected memory card.
During the demonstration, Halderman explained that a hacker could spread undetectable malicious software to an electoral database where it could then be transmitted to the memory cards used by election officials without their knowledge. This process, Halderman claimed, would allow a hacker to compromise the integrity of the DRE machine without physically touching the machine themselves.
The malicious software could change the votes entered by voters into the machines.
Since Georgia’s DRE machines do not provide any sort of paper backup to voters, Halderman said there is no way to properly audit potentially infected machines.
“The most secure election configuration is a paper trail that the voter can see,” Halderman said. “That is the most secure because you can cross check the electronic and paper record. There’s nothing Georgia can do to reasonably secure the paperless touchscreen machines in use today.”
Richard DeMillo, a former chief technology officer for Hewlett-Packard and a current professor of computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, agreed with Halderman when he was called to testify by the plaintiffs.
“It’s not a trustworthy system,” DeMillo said. “If a machine is compromised it would take 30 minutes to check. It would take 14,000 hours to check all Georgia’s machines. But it still wouldn’t be safe because you’d have to check all the memory cards too. But that still wouldn’t be trustworthy because you need to be able to detect fraud. Without a written record to check against the electronic record, you can’t detect fraud.”
While the plaintiffs focused on the DRE machine’s vulnerabilities, the state focused its arguments largely on the difficulties it would face if it were forced to revamp the electoral process weeks before early voting is scheduled to begin in Georgia on October 15.
“It would be extremely difficult [to execute a paper election in 2018],” Georgia Elections Director Chris Harvey testified. “You’d have to get and pay for ballots, train workers, devise a system to transport ballots, take ballots to a central location to scan… Results would take longer. We’d also have to have storage space.”
Harvey estimated that new printed ballots would cost counties between 60 and 80 cents per ballot.
“[This] would affect early voting by reducing early voting sites because staffing would be a problem,” Harvey said. “It would also take voters longer to vote because they’ve been using electronic machines for years. It might discourage voters.”
Richard Baron, director of the Fulton County Board of Registration and Elections, agreed with Harvey’s assessment, telling the court that he would cut Fulton County’s early voting sites from 20 to just three sites.
Baron claimed it would be “too difficult” to operate the planned 20 polling sites if DRE machines were removed from use. In order to process paper ballots efficiently, Baron opined that Fulton County would need 250 optical scanners. The county currently has 45 scanners.
In her closing statements, Totenberg called the situation “a catch-22,” and said that while no one wants their vote “unsecured or diluted,” she is also concerned that a switch to paper ballots could result in a compromise that reduces voter confidence due to long lines and a new, unfamiliar process.