Georgia is one of five states that still relies entirely on paperless voting machines, even as most others have switched to scanned-in paper ballots. | Tami Chappell/AFP/Getty Images
Voting machine errors already roil Texas and Georgia races
The errors would appear to work to the advantage of Republican Texas Sen. Ted Cruz over Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke.
Glitchy paperless voting machines are affecting an untold number of early voting ballots in Texas and Georgia, raising the specter that two of the most closely watched races could be marred by questions about whether the vote count is accurate.
Civil rights groups and voters in the two states have filed complaints, alleging that electronic voting machines — some with touchscreens, some operated with dials — inexplicably deleted some people’s votes for Democratic candidates or switched them to Republican votes.
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The errors — which experts have blamed on outdated software and old machines — would appear to work to the advantage of Republican Texas Sen. Ted Cruz over Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke, and that of Georgia GOP gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp over Democrat Stacey Abrams.
It’s unclear how many times the errors have happened or whether the errors could change the outcome of either race, both of which appear to be tight. But the latest episodes come after at least a decade and a half of warnings from election security groups about the dangers of relying on voting machines that don’t produce a paper trail — saying they’re insecure and produce results that are impossible to audit.
Experts in voting technology say the machine errors aren’t the result of mischief by hackers. But the same lack of a paper trail that would make it impossible to verify voters’ intent in these races would also hamper efforts to detect a cyberattack on the election machinery.
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“This machine problem is essentially threatening to call into question the entire election in Texas,” said Beth Stevens, voting rights legal director for the Texas Civil Rights Project.
Five states — Georgia, South Carolina, Louisiana, Delaware and New Jersey — still rely entirely on paperless voting machines, even as most others have switched to scanned-in paper ballots that resemble an SAT test. Seven states still use the paperless machines partially, including Texas and Pennsylvania.
The issue has prompted particular controversy this year in Georgia, where voting integrity groups filed a lawsuit demanding that the state switch to voting machines that use paper ballots. Their opponent in that suit was Kemp, who as secretary of state is Georgia’s chief election official.
In a ruling in September, a federal judge declined to force Georgia to replace its paperless machines before Tuesday’s midterms but agreed with plaintiffs that continued use of those systems could harm their constitutional rights to a free and fair election.
Sara Henderson, executive director of the voting rights group Common Cause Georgia, told POLITICO that Kemp’s resistance to upgrading machines is “not protecting the voters, it’s not doing what’s right for Georgia and its election system.”
Voters cast ballots during the early voting period at C.T. Martin Natatorium and Recreation Center on October 18 in Atlanta, Georgia. Early voting started in Georgia on October 15th. | Jessica McGowan/Getty Images
For Kemp, she said, pushing back against pressure to upgrade election systems is political. In 2016, when the Obama administration moved to protect voting systems by classifying them as critical infrastructure, Kemp called the move unconstitutional. “It’s a political thing for Brian Kemp to be able to say, ‘Well I beat back these good-government organizations even though we’re just trying to protect the voters.’”
Even though Kemp has previously acknowledged the state needs a verifiable paper trail, he has dismissed the early-voting complaints.
“They have no evidence and no witnesses. Just fake outrage and members of the media who care more about headlines than facts,” Cody Hall, press secretary for Kemp, said in a statement to POLITICO.
On Sunday, Kemp provoked another outcry from voting integrity advocates for accusing Georgia Democrats of hacking the state’s voter registration system without backing up the allegations with evidence. His office said that following a “failed hacking attempt” it launched an investigation into the state’s Democratic party.
In a CNN interview, his Democratic opponent Abrams said the inquiry just two days ahead of the vote was a “desperate” move to “turn the conversation away from his failures.”
In Texas, Secretary of State Rolando Pablos denied that early voting problems were the result of a bug in the machine. Instead, he blamed human error, saying voters need to go through ballots more slowly and double check their selections before submitting.
In a video released Friday, Pablos told voters: “Your votes will count, and your voices will be heard!”
But voters’ problems with electronic machines shouldn’t surprise any state officials.
“These voting equipment issues surface every election, ever since 2006 when these were widely deployed,” said Marian Schneider, president of Verified Voting, an election integrity group that has advocated for states to stop using voting machines without auditable paper trails.
In fact, the machines stirred controversy years before that in states like Florida, where many counties briefly switched to paperless voting machines in response to the state’s disastrous experience with punch card ballots during the 2000 presidential election. The results were not always pretty: In one local election in Palm Beach County, the electronic machines recorded 78 blank ballots in a village council race that was decided by four votes.
Some Democrats such as Robert F. Kennedy Jr. later tried to raise doubts about the integrity of the electronic voting machines that Ohio used during President George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection victory — claims that the manufacturer, Diebold, denounced as “error-riddled.”
Georgia uses Diebold AccuVote voting machines that it purchased in 2002. The chief complaints today are that units can glitch during the voting process and occasionally incorrectly register a vote. In Texas, 78 counties out of 254 use Hart InterCivic eSlate machines, which have reportedly switched some selections to the other party on straight ticket votes.
During the runup to the 2016 election, notions of “rigged” and “hacked” elections began to chip away at voter confidence, and then-presidential candidate Donald Trump warned that Democrats might “rig” the election. Now, election integrity advocates fear that those same ideas will pop up after the midterms.
“When you have candidates who have brought into the vernacular the terms ‘hacked,’ ‘tampered’ and ‘rigged,’ the faith in the system and the confidence of the process are at stake,” said Gregory Miller, co-founder of the election integrity advocacy group OSET Institute.
Despite some partisan divides over early voting complaints, Republicans and Democrats in Texas and elsewhere have stressed that upgrading voting systems shouldn’t be a political issue.
Republican Texas state Sen. Bryan Hughes, chairman of the state’s Senate Select Committee on Election Security, said the problems with voting machines have been a major concern among Republican state lawmakers.
However, he said, he doesn’t believe the recent glitches have diminished confidence in the election. He said the machines can still accurately record votes if voters slow down when clicking through their ballots.
Hughes, who has also avidly supported increasing voter ID laws, said he was confident Texas lawmakers would pass legislation to slowly phase out the paperless voting machines with ones reinforced with a paper trail.
Most Americans live in jurisdictions where they can vote with a paper trail, Hughes said. “It’s one of the few areas where Texas is behind.”
CORRECTION: This story was updated after publication to correctly describe electronic voting machines in Georgia and Texas as both touchscreen and ones operated with dials.
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