ATLANTA (CN) – Saying the issue strikes at the heart of a functioning democracy, a federal judge ordered Georgia on Thursday to retire old, hack-prone voting machines in time for the March 2020 primaries.
The doorstopper 153-page opinion comes nearly a year after U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg declined to issue an injunction in time for the 2018 state election, despite finding ample evidence that inadequacies in Georgia’s voting system made it unlikely that votes were being counted properly.
In the intervening months, the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature tried to render the issue moot: appropriating funding to switch from outdated Diebold AccuVote’s DRE voting machines, short for direct recording electronic, to ballot-marking devices and optical scanners.
With the new system set to hit six pilot counties in time for the November 2019 elections, followed by statewide implementation in all 159 counties, Georgia argued that putting an interim fix in place for the 2019 off-cycle elections would be highly disruptive.
But Totenberg on Thursday said there is reason to doubt the state’s timeline. Indeed it was only last week that the secretary of state certified Dominion Voting Systems as meeting Georgia’s standards to implement the new system, and Georgia also recently revealed that it has not yet definitively selected the pilot counties for the new system.
“Given the state’s demonstrated capacity limits in managing the issues that have arisen in connection with Georgia’s elections systems to date and the evidence that the state itself has previously provided regarding the challenges of such a condensed time frame for a statewide rollout of a major change in voting methods, the court has real reason for concern regarding the state’s capacity for effectively handling the mammoth undertaking of starting from scratch and facilitating a rollout of the new voting system in 100 percent of the counties and precincts by the promised primary election deadline of March 24, 2020,” the ruling states. “The court is further concerned whether the state has a backup plan other than the tainted DRE/GEMS system if its BMD system is not ready to launch in all counties statewide.”
Totenberg called it essential that Georgia put a backup plan in place, directing the state to retire the old machines after 2019 and to be ready with hand-marked paper ballots for voting in 2020 if the new system is not ready for operation.
“The past may here be prologue anew – it may be ‘like déjà vu all over again,’” Totenberg quipped. “The defendants have previously minimized, erased, or dodged the issues underlying this case. Thus, the court has made sure that the past is recounted frankly in this order, to ensure transparency for the future.”
Marilyn Marks, executive director for the Coalition for Good Governance, said in an email she and her group were pleased with the court’s decision, but there was still plenty of work to be done to ensure the state’s elections were fair and free of disruption.
“Just as important as the required transition to auditable paper ballots is the Court’s order that Georgia’s inaccurate electronic pollbooks must be corrected to stop the disenfranchisement of eligible voters, and that paper pollbook backups be available for elections beginning in 2020,” Marks said.
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger noted meanwhile that his office is still reviewing the order but happy that the court supports the BMD switch.
Taking aim at the challengers he criticized as “activist plaintiffs,” however, Raffensperger said they are using “scare tactics” to “force their preferred policy outcomes on Georgia voters without success.”
“The Secretary of State’s Office is already moving full steam ahead to implement Georgia’s new paper ballot voting system in time for the March 2020 presidential preference primary,” he said in a statement.
Georgia switched to paperless voting as part of a national transition away from the mechanical system in the wake of the “hanging chad” debacle of the 2000 presidential election. Only a few other states joined Georgia in going all digital, with about 70% of voters nationwide use paper ballots.