ATHENS, Ga. -- A Georgia county has opted to ditch the state's new voting machines and switch to hand-marked paper ballots during early voting for the March presidential primary, despite a warning from the county's attorney that the decision could result in litigation that's tough to defend in court.
The Athens-Clarke County Board of Elections voted 3-2 on Tuesday to mothball the new machines after less than two days of using them in early voting ahead of Georgia's presidential primaries. The board ordered poll workers to switch to paper ballots marked by hand starting Wednesday.
Board Chairman Jesse Evans said concerns that bystanders at the polls could see the choices voters made on the new system's touchscreens rendered it impossible to guarantee ballot secrecy.
The March 24 presidential primaries mark the first statewide test for Georgia's new $103 million voting system, which combines electronic touchscreens with printed ballots to provide a paper record of the vote. Some election integrity advocates have argued the bright touchscreens with their large fonts make it easy to see how other people are voting.
Georgia law requires all of the state's 159 counties to use the new voting system except when county election officials determine that using electronic machines becomes “impossible or impracticable.”
Judd Drake, the attorney for Athens-Clarke County, cautioned board members Tuesday that it would be difficult to meet that standard in court after the county's own election supervisor insisted the machines could be arranged in a way that protects voters' privacy.
“It could present a challenge later on to the board’s decision if the board decides to use the paper ballots," Drake said on an audio recording of the Tuesday meeting available on the board's website. He added the decision would likely face a lawsuit by voters or state election officials.
Georgia's new system replaces the outdated paperless touchscreen machines the state had been using since 2002. The new touchscreen voting machines are connected to printers that produce a paper ballot, which voters feed into a scanner that reads and tallies the votes.
Georgia's 2020 elections are being closely watched after officials faced a torrent of criticism in 2018. Problems included hourslong waits at some polling sites, security breaches that left voters’ registration information exposed and accusations that strict ID matching requirements and registration errors suppressed turnout. That led to lawsuits and changes to state law that included switching election systems.
Drake noted that a judge in another Georgia county had already rejected an advocacy group's emergency request to force a switch to hand-marked paper ballots.
Superior Court Judge Rucker Smith ruled Monday that the Coalition for Good Governance failed to prove it will be “impossible or impracticable” for Sumter County election officials to arrange voting machines “in a manner that protects the secrecy of the ballot while allowing sufficient monitoring.”
Drake did not return a phone call seeking comment Wednesday. Neither did Charlotte Sosebee, Athens-Clarke County's elections supervisor.
Before the board voted to switch to paper ballots Tuesday, Sosebee told members she would be able to arrange voting machines at all polling sites in a way that touchscreens faced the walls to help shield voters' ballots from prying eyes.
“We can turn the machines around so that the back of the ballot-marking devices is what the voters will see" while waiting in line to cast their own ballots, Sosebee said.
Evans said he had visited a polling site and saw the privacy problem firsthand.
“I could clearly see the screen for the ballot marking device that was closest to the window. ... Ballot secrecy is compromised," Evans said. "I’ve seen it myself.”
Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger's office, which oversees Georgia elections, had no immediate comment on Athens-Clarke County's decision to sideline the new machines.
In an unrelated statement Wednesday, Raffensperger said he was hearing positive reviews of the new machines from across the state.
“I am excited to hear that Georgians like our new system and are confident in the paper ballot process,” he said. “We waste a lot of time and resources fighting with fringe activists and beating back frivolous lawsuits designed to distract us from our mission of expanding secure voting access."
Officials with the secretary of state's office have acknowledged there are legitimate privacy concerns with the new machines. The agency recently sent precinct layout diagrams to county election officials to help with those concerns.
In a message to county election officials, Chris Harvey, the director of the agency's elections division, said the diagrams “illustrate potential problems and solutions to securing voter privacy.”
Bynum reported from Savannah, Georgia.