On Thursday, federal District Court Judge Amy Totenberg ruled that the state of Georgia may no longer continue using paperless voting machines starting with the 2020 elections and excoriated Republican officials over significant election security flaws.
Totenberg declined to bar the use of the machines for this November’s municipal elections, citing the short time that would have been available to replace them with another voting method. However, in 2020, her ruling will require the state to either use voting machines that print a paper ballot record or switch to paper ballots that are filled out with a pen and then fed into an optical scanner.
Totenberg’s decision also ordered election officials to fix errors in Georgia’s voter registration database and provide paper backups for the electronic poll books at each polling place, which are used to track whether a registered voter has cast a ballot or not when a voter shows up on Election Day.
This ruling is not only a victory for the plaintiffs who filed this lawsuit in 2017; it also marks the first time a federal court has blocked the use of paperless voting machines, which more than a dozen others states use. However, it’s far from the end of the legal battle over election administration in Georgia.
Earlier this year, Republican legislators awarded a $107 million contract for the new machines to Dominion Voting. Known as “ballot-marking devices,” these particular machines print both a bar code, which voters cannot read, and a text summary of their votes, which they can. It is the bar code, however, that is scanned and tallied when votes are tabulated, not the text summary. Plaintiffs contend, therefore, that relying on unreadable bar codes renders the system insecure and undermines voter confidence in the integrity of the results.
Reform advocates have, consequently, vowed to fight the bar code machines by pushing for an alternative, such as paper ballots filled in by hand. Totenberg’s ruling didn’t foreclose the use of the bar code voting machines, but she expressed doubt that they would be ready for use by the time of next year’s March 24 presidential primary. She therefore mandated that officials come up with a backup plan, such as paper ballots, in the event that the machines can’t be deployed in time.
Plaintiffs first filed their lawsuit when Republican Brian Kemp, who was elected governor last year, was responsible for running Georgia’s elections in his role as secretary of state. Kemp drew national condemnation for his voter suppression efforts while overseeing his own election last year against Democrat Stacey Abrams. On his watch, his office was also responsible for a major security failure that exposed the sensitive personal information of six million voters.
Kemp’s successor as secretary of state, fellow Republican Brad Raffensperger, has continued to fight the push for paper ballots. In an explosive court filing last month, the plaintiffs accused Republican election administrators of destroying evidence to cover up security failings over the past two years, and a recent report in The Guardian revealed another bombshell: Employees of the firm that manufactured Georgia’s current paperless voting machines were designing electronic ballots from their home offices rather than in a secure location, potentially allowing those ballots to be hacked.
Totenberg’s ruling is a first step toward a more secure voting system in Georgia. Now the legal fight will move on to what the replacement voting method will be.