OPINION – Georgia held its primary election on Tuesday and the headline in the Atlanta Journal Constitution on Wednesday morning was “’Complete Meltdown.’”
The New York Times reported that the voting system “suffered a spectacular collapse,” with “hourslong waits at polling sites.”
Because “many of the longest lines plagued predominantly black neighborhoods in and around Atlanta while rural white counties experienced relatively fewer problems,” the Times reported, Democrats blamed Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and accused him of intentionally trying to suppress voting.
“What happened in Georgia yesterday was by design,” Hillary Clinton wrote on Twitter. “Voter suppression is a threat to our democracy.”
However, on closer inspection, it appears that what is threatening our democracy is new voting technology that governments have been persuaded to buy. If the meltdown in Georgia sounds familiar, it’s because the same thing happened in Los Angeles County on March 3.
Both Georgia and L.A. County replaced older voting systems with new touchscreen ballot-marking devices that produce a printed paper ballot for the voter to inspect before it is cast. In both systems, the ballot is scanned and the optical scans are used for tallying. The paper ballots are put in boxes and stored.
Both Georgia and L.A. County used new electronic pollbooks instead of paper rosters to check in voters, rolled out all-new voting technology for its first wide use in a presidential election year and saw “extreme wait times,” in the words of a legal complaint filed by the Bernie Sanders campaign on election night in Los Angeles. Both also experienced the breakdown of many voting machines.
It was Raffensperger who approved the voting technology in Georgia, and in California it was Secretary of State Alex Padilla who was the driving force behind the conversion to new voting technology. Padilla, a Democrat, certified the L.A. system for use in the March primary despite numerous documented problems with it.
The history of how new, high-tech voting systems came to replace hand-marked paper ballots goes back to the hanging-chad debacle in Florida’s close presidential election in 2000. Funding was made available to buy new, electronic voting systems.
In some states, including Georgia, the all-electronic voting technology was itself a problem. Following issues in the 2018 mid-term elections, Georgia approved the purchase of an electronic system from Denver-based Dominion Voting that would include a paper ballot.
The belief that a paper record was key to the success of an electronic voting system also led California to require new voting technologies to include a paper ballot that would be available for audits and recounts. However, the March 3 primary election revealed a new problem.
Although there are paper ballots, they’re stored unsorted, and for all practical purposes there’s no way to see them.
Prior to the adoption of the new voting technology, ballots from each precinct were stored together, and the paper ballots were tallied by machine. It was easy to retrieve ballots for a recount and for the manual tally of 1 percent of the precincts in every election, which is required by California law as a check on the accuracy of the machine count.
It appears that Los Angeles County is no longer complying with this law.
In the city of Long Beach, a sales-tax extension on the March 3 ballot squeaked to a late victory by 16 votes, prompting a recount request by the Long Beach Reform Coalition. The county told the group to be prepared to pay an estimated cost of more than $200,000 for a recount of the approximately 100,000 paper ballots. An attempt was made to recount the optical scans instead, using computer monitors for each of the recount boards, but after three days of technical setup and counting, the effort was proceeding so slowly that the labor price for completing even the electronic recount was on track to cost an estimated $150,000. The three-day recount found a number of discrepancies, but a recount can only change the outcome of an election if it is fully completed.
The Long Beach Reform Coalition asked L.A. County Registrar Dean Logan to retrieve and sort the paper ballots at county expense and charge the group a reasonable rate for the recount, but Logan refused. The Long Beach group has now filed a lawsuit. In court papers, the group cited a report from Logan’s office showing that the required 1% manual tally was conducted by counting “batches” of ballots instead of precincts. The California Elections Code requires a manual tally of 1% of precincts, not a tally of unsorted “batches.”
The ballot retrieval cost is a serious flaw in the new voting technology that’s not limited to Los Angeles County. A close election on March 3 for San Joaquin County Board of Education Trustee Area 3 similarly produced a request for a recount, and a cost estimate of $198,615 for 17 days of work to retrieve and count roughly 16,141 paper ballots.
What this means is that the results of close elections cannot be verified. If the ballots are not sorted by precinct, the 1 percent manual tally doesn’t confirm the accuracy of the machine count. And if it costs $200,000 to retrieve and recount the paper ballots from races with 100,000 or fewer votes, citizens are effectively denied what the law guarantees — the opportunity to request a manual recount of an election.
In California’s November election, millions of hand-marked vote-by-mail ballots will be scanned and stored, unsorted. We will never know if the optical scans were tallied accurately.
Election officials often say they want the public to have confidence in our elections. They can help by sorting the paper ballots by precinct, conducting the 1 percent manual tally as legally required and making the paper ballots available for recounts as part of the government’s responsibility to conduct elections.