RINGGOLD, Ga. (CN) — The plastic film protecting the screens of four tablets used to mark ballots were not yet peeled off, though they were growing dog-eared on the edges, when residents of Catoosa County became some of the first voters in the state to test Georgia’s new voting machines.
About 50 residents of Catoosa County sipped on fruit punch in the building that houses the Catoosa County Elections & Voter Registration Department Monday evening. In a few moments, they were about to cast ballots in a demonstration election that asked questions such as the name of Georgia’s state bird (the brown thrasher).
Georgia announced in July that it had chosen a new method of conducting elections after a contentious 2018 gubernatorial election left voting rights activists questioning the integrity of the state’s voting system. A ballot-marking system that allows voters to fill out their votes on a screen, which prints out a ballot, which the voter then feeds into a scanner produced by Dominion Voting Systems was the winning bid, costing the state $107 million.
Most Georgia voters will continue to use the old system, which records votes digitally, one last time in November elections this year. Catoosa County, a short drive from the Tennessee city of Chattanooga, is one of six counties piloting the new system, which include Carroll, Bartow, Decatur, Paulding and Lowndes counties. It’s a voting system that, according to its critics, failed to solve the problems of the old voting system.
Speaking at the demonstration in Catoosa County, Chris Harvey, director of elections for Georgia, called the rollout of the new system a “big, big lift for Georgia.”
About 30,000 machines need to be distributed across the state. Poll workers require training — voters too — while the state elections office familiarizes itself with the new system. By the end of the month, voting officials in all 159 counties will have received training on the system supplied by Dominion.
The new system combines the benefits of a digital ballot with a paper one.
“The people who want paper now have paper,” Harvey said. “The people that like the technology and certainty of marking the ballot, we have that too.”
Catoosa County, with 46,000 registered voters, received 187 tablets, 187 printers and 19 black ballot boxes with scanners recording the votes of every ballot fed into the box. In the coming election, the state will supply the 50,000 pieces of paper Catoosa needs on hand to run the election.
The new voting system comes after U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg in Atlanta ordered the state to retire its old voting machines — which recorded the votes only digitally, with no auditable paper trail — before the March 2020 elections.
In the same case, the plaintiffs are trying to get the court to change the judge’s decision. They are trying to amend the complaint for the third time. The voting machines — four of the 30,000 the state purchased, sitting in the Catoosa county meeting — violated the constitution, the plaintiffs argued in their complaint.
In a court filing Thursday, Georgia said that each county in the state would receive a tablet, a printer and ballot box within 10 days. As the days go on, the people running elections in Georgia will get trained in the system.
As for the old, digital-only machines, “Despite what people didn’t like about them, they worked,” Harvey said. “There was never any evidence that any of them didn’t do what they were supposed to do.”
But they were 17 years old, Harvey acknowledged.
In coming weeks, elections officials will fill a trailer with some of these voting machines to let Georgians figure out the new system. They plan to pull the trailer to, say, state fairs, and show people the nuances of the voting system, such as making sure voters take the paper ballot out of the printer tray and actually cast the ballot before leaving the precinct.
None of the system is online; none of it is connected to the internet, Harvey said.
Georgia picked Catoosa County as one of the pilot counties in part because it has a strong election office and infrastructure, Harvey said in an interview.
Speaking at the demonstration of the voting machines, Harvey said Moore and her office contacts his office often to verify information.
“Elections and election law changes all the time,” Harvey said. “Last November, it changed from day to day, week to week as courts got involved.”
Cobb County is experimenting with hand-marked ballots scanned into those black ballot boxes.
“Judge Totenburg ordered us to conduct one hand-marked pilot,” Harvey said. “So Cobb County is doing that for four municipal elections.”
But despite the rollout, could the lawsuit in Atlanta still upend all this?
“I don’t want to talk about the lawsuit stuff,” Harvey said.
In mid-August, the Coalition for Good Governance sought to amend its complaint in the lawsuit in which Totenburg ordered Georgia to get rid of its direct recording electronic machines. The system being implemented across the state, the coalition said, did not comply with the law the Legislature passed in April, and was unconstitutional.
Voters, the third proposed amended complaint said, could not verify that ballots’ barcodes read by the machine matched with what people intended to vote.
“Despite the fact that cybersecurity experts and government officials recommend a voting system that included a voter-verified paper trail, the Proposed Election System will rely on a non-voter-verified barcode as the elector’s actual vote,” the proposed amended complaint said.
Furthermore, about 1,450 voters signed a petition in late August asking the Secretary of State’s Office to reverify the system, in part because it used an older standard to certify it.
The Coalition also asked the judge to amend the judgment, to require the state to tell the court how it plans to evaluate the pilots by Oct. 1 and how the pilot elections performed by the end of November.
In its filing opposing the coalition’s request to amend the judgment, Georgia said 41 states used ballot marking devices similar to the one Georgia is deploying. In the 2020 presidential election, 44 states will use them.
Claiming that the Coalition did not understand how elections are run in Georgia, Georgia wrote in its filing, “Coalition Plaintiffs’ proposed amendments are not necessary and may actually harm the ongoing efforts of the State to implement actual elections.”
Tonya Moore, director of elections for Catoosa County, said the 2019 elections, with their focus on filling local seats, will have a turnout of 5% to 20% of registered voters.
The biggest challenge in Georgia elections, she said, is people misunderstanding voting laws. For instance, after years of inactivity, people can lose their voter registration status, she said.
In a few days, voters in Catoosa will head to the polls to decide city elections. A pro-wrestler is hoping to unseat the incumbent mayor, a middle school math teacher.
Moore told the test voters who gathered Monday night that the voting machines are “very similar to what we had before, but yet they’re different.”
Early voting begins Oct. 14.