You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Making Georgia’s Bad Elections Even Worse

How newly elected Governor Brian Kemp is undermining the vote—all while potentially enriching a company with close ties to his administration.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

After Brian Kemp suppressed enough votes and stirred up enough bigotries to get himself elected governor of Georgia last November, you might have expected him to hit the ground running with some extra-crazy, super-Trumpy initiatives. Kemp edged out Democrat Stacey Abrams, after all, by running as Trump with a Deep-South Drawl—brandishing his shotgun at a teenage boy, threatening to personally round up “criminal illegals” and run them out of the state, painting Abrams as the new Angela Davis. When he took office in January, Georgians braced for something audacious: semi-automatics mandated in every household, a “beautiful wall” to be built around the state, or perhaps a requirement to say “Merry Christmas” during the holidays. That’s the sort of governin’ that Kemp voters were led to expect.

But the governor’s most consequential move thus far has been to urge the state to buy super-pricey new electronic voting machines to replace its 27,000 ancient, notoriously hackable models that Kemp insisted on using last time for his own election. But lest you think Kemp is motivated by a desire for freer and fairer elections, there is, in fact, a Trumpian catch: The likely recipient of Georgia’s largesse will be a company that one of Kemp’s closest aides used to lobby for, while another served on its board of advisers. So far, Kemp’s administration has apparently been fueled by good old-fashioned crony corruption, rather than newfangled populism.

The cost of the replacement machines, known as ballot-marking devices (BMDs), is sky-high: Kemp included $150 million in his budget to buy them. That’s just an initial price, not including annual maintenance fees and licensing deals and such, but it’s at least three times what it would cost to have Georgians vote by paper ballot, as 70 percent of the country now does. Fiscal responsibility, y’all!

The justification for the big-spending election bill—which zipped through the state House and now awaits approval in the Republican-dominated Senate—is that the machines will ward off cybersecurity threats while making elections more efficient than the messy old paper balloting. Inconveniently for the GOP, neither is true. Electronic voting machines, all the rage after Florida’s meltdown in 2000, are largely passé, both because of their costs and their vulnerabilities to cyberattacks. In an exhaustive report last September, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine urged that paper be used for all U.S. elections in 2020, because “no known technology can guarantee the secrecy, security, and verifiability of a marked ballot transmitted over the internet.”

Cybersecurity and computer-science experts have said for years that the only way to ward off election tampering is to use paper ballots. Fifty-five percent of Georgia voters, who’ve learned not to trust their state’s election results after years of controversies, lawsuits, and scandals, recently told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution they wanted to switch to paper.

But Kemp, and the business-friendly commission he appointed after the election to fix Georgia’s voting problems, have opted to pay more for a less secure system. Along with Delaware, which passed its own expensive upgrade to electronic BMDs last fall, it’ll become the only state where every precinct votes electronically. (In most states, unlike Georgia, there’s local control over how elections are conducted.)

The new machines being peddled by companies like Election Security & Software (ES&S), the nation’s biggest vendor of voting technology, are designed to give the impression of being “voter-verifiable.” But it’s a ruse. The machines produce a so-called “paper ballot,” which voters can use to verify a text printout of their votes if they take the time. But it’s not the text the voter is reading and reviewing, but the barcode beneath, that is actually tallied electronically as their vote. As a citizen-activist, George Balbona, put it at the recent state House committee meeting, “There’s not a person here that can read a barcode.”

Elections officials can’t, either. The barcode-based setup “makes a mockery of the notion that the ballot is ‘voter-verifiable,’” agreed Duncan Buell, a computer science professor at the University of South Carolina, because “what the voter verifies is not what is tallied.”

Georgia Tech computing professor Richard DeMillo attempted to explain to House members why ballot-marking devices were needless cybersecurity risks: “What we’re concerned with is that some unobservable piece of technology will get between the formation of an intention in the voter’s mind and the indelible transfer of that intention to a piece of paper. That is where the hack occurs,” DeMillo said. “A hand-marked paper ballot imposes no intermediate technology. What you see is literally the best evidence of voter intent.”

Republicans on the committee weren’t particularly interested in any of that, aside from lone dissenter Representative Scot Turner, who decried the GOP’s support for “wasting $150 million.”

“It would not have mattered if we’d shown up with two stone tablets in the House, decreeing that the Lord wanted paper ballots,” said Marilyn Marks, head of the Coalition for Good Governance, a leading proponent of paper balloting. “They wouldn’t have heard.”

Why are Kemp and friends in such a hurry to spend so much unnecessary money? Both McClatchy and The New Yorker have provided some pretty juicy clues. Kemp’s deputy chief of staff, former state Representative Chuck Harper, is a former lobbyist for ES&S, the odds-on favorite to win the Georgia contract if the $150 million is approved. Another, David Dove, was on the company’s board of advisers, and thus had long been enjoying the perks that ES&S offers to elections officials around the country—“airfare on trips to places like Las Vegas and New York, upscale-hotel accommodations, and tickets to live events,” as Sue Halpern wrote in The New Yorker. She later added a pertinent detail: “In March 2017, when [Dove] attended an ES&S junket in Las Vegas, Kemp’s office was in the market to replace the state’s entire inventory of voting machines.” Dove was Secretary Kemp’s chief of staff at the time; now he’s Governor Kemp’s executive counsel.

“Previous work as a lobbyist is not a disqualifier for public service,” Kemp’s office told the Atlanta-Journal Constitution. “People should not bend the facts to suit a narrative. Mr. Harper and Mr. Dove are men of integrity. They followed the law. They will continue to do so.”

Back when Georgia first fell for it, shortly after the Florida fiasco of 2000, electronic voting seemed like the wave of the future. But as cybersecurity threats have metastasized in recent cycles, most states and localities have retired the machines (except for voters unable to mark paper ballots) and gone back to plain old reliable, recountable paper. Not Georgia, though. Or key battleground areas like Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Johnson County, Kansas; and Franklin County, Ohio. All of them have recently purchased ballot-marking machines.

Given the heightened awareness of election-security threats after 2016, it might seem downright odd that anybody is forking out the money for these machines. But some local elections officials say they prefer them—sometimes because they’ve been wined-and-dined by the vendors (as 18 county elections officials in Pennsylvania were recently outed as doing), sometimes because they think the touchscreen machines will make things easier. Paper ballots have to be printed and distributed, after all, then audited and counted. With ES&S’s ExpressVote, the county may have to buy expensive, specialized paper for the machines, but on Election Day, that paper is sent off into electronic purgatory via the machines. No muss, no fuss, no clean-up for elections workers. Also, no verifiability.

The touchscreen manufacturers also claim that their machines make voting go faster, resulting in shorter waits to cast a ballot—and fewer voters who give up and leave without voting. In fact, the opposite has proven true. In the only state to use ballot-marking devices en masse in 2018, Maryland, county officials reported that lines were longer than ever, especially during peak voting hours. The reason is pretty obvious: Lots of people can fill out their hand ballots at the same time, as opposed to waiting to use the limited number of machines available.

And unlike filling in bubbles on a sheet of paper, ExpressVote is anything but intuitive to use, as this demonstration video from Johnson County, Kansas—a real treat for fans of 1950s instructional films!—makes clumsily clear:

The multiple steps required of a voter and machine attendant take six minutes just to explain.

Fair-elections activists, cybersecurity folks, and regular citizens in Georgia—the ones who’ve caught on to what’s happening, that is—are appropriately outraged by the idea of spending so much money for vulnerable technology. The group Stacey Abrams founded after the midterms, Fair Fight Action, has run TV and radio ads to stir up opposition. “Those faulty machines—the ones that could get hacked to steal our vote—Governor Kemp wants to spend $150 million of our taxpayer dollars to buy more,” says the TV ad, which mentions that Kemp hired ES&S’s former lobbyist.

But the governor and his allies are betting that they can get the bill through the legislature before it becomes a political albatross. To grease the wheels, Kemp’s successor as secretary of state, former GOP House member Brad Raffensperger, has been spreading disinformation. To combat the reporting about the excessive cost of the touchscreen machines, his office produced an analysis of what it’ll cost to use paper ballots over the next decade—$244 million, it claims.

Of course, that’s an apples-and-oranges comparison—an initial cost versus a 10-year cost—and activists say that Raffensperger inflated the cost of paper and the amount of paper that would be required for hand-balloting. Two conservative groups, the National Election Defense Coalition and FreedomWorks, called the voting-machine deal a “boondoggle” in a letter last week to state Senate Republicans. “The Secretary of State is circulating a cost analysis that is profoundly misleading and wildly inflates the costs of conducting elections with hand-marked paper ballots,” they wrote. “The Secretary’s analysis is like comparing the cost of buying a Chevrolet — plus insurance, gas and repairs for ten years — to the cost of … buying a Bentley and then trying to insist the Bentley is cheaper.”

Interviewed last week by Georgia Public Broadcasting, Raffensperger shrugged off the naysayers, saying, “there’s always going to be people who want to pick a fight.” He chalked up any opposition to partisan politics and outside agitators: “I guess the national Democrats and national liberal organizations want hand-marked paper ballots; they don’t get that, then they’re going to stomp their feet.”

Outside Georgia, conservatives tend to be anything but gung-ho about electronic voting methods. One of Congress’s leading advocates for paper ballots is none other than Freedom Caucus chair Mark Meadows, who floated the Paper Act last year, which would have offered financial incentives to states and municipalities who set aside their machines for paper ballots. Anti-tax guru Grover Norquist and former Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff wrote a widely circulated op-ed supporting paper ballots as the best defense against cybersecurity threats.

Most of the country’s elections officials are listening. But in Georgia, the lobbying efforts of voting-machine vendors appear to be paying off in spectacular fashion. Unless Congress forces everyone to use paper ballots—which Republicans don’t like, because it would smack of a “federal mandate” and weaken local control of elections—it’s likely that Georgia, just as it becomes a battleground state, will end up with election results that can’t be trusted in 2020 and beyond. There was only one way to make Georgia’s bad elections worse. And Brian Kemp and his cronies, by God, have found it.