Republican Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp drew national condemnation for his attempts to suppress and deceive voters as well as his office’s security failures when he oversaw his own election for governor last year while serving as secretary of state. Now, one of his first major priorities is to make matters worse under the pretext of reform.
Kemp has been pushing to have the state spend at least $150 million to buy new electronic voting machines to replace all of the paperless models currently in use, and Republican state legislators just passed a bill to do so along party lines. While the current machines are long overdue for replacement with a more secure system, this plan has been criticized as an effort by Kemp to reward his cronies.
The machines Kemp and Republicans want to purchase are produced by Election Security & Software, which is the country’s largest voting machine vendor. However, a recent New Yorker exposé revealed Kemp’s deep ties to ES&S run deep and present a conflict of interest. For starters, Kemp’s deputy chief of staff is a former lobbyist for ES&S. In addition, his executive counsel was on the company’s board of advisers while Kemp was looking at replacement voting machines in 2017, a process that was supposed to be open to competition from other firms yet in reality appears to have been anything but.
Election security advocates have also condemned the plan because the use of electronic machines would cost at least three times what it would take to implement paper ballots that voters fill out themselves, and it’s also far less secure. The ES&S machines don’t even provide a paper trail for voters to review their choices, since they only create a barcode for officials to scan, something voters obviously wouldn’t be able to read.
Election security was a major problem in Georgia’s elections last year, when Kemp successfully fought off a lawsuit seeking to force the state to use paper ballots for that election. After the votes were tallied, election experts noticed that there were an unusually high number of undervotes in the lieutenant governor’s race, but only among votes cast by electronic machine—at a rate four times higher than among votes who cast by absentee mail ballot.
Of course, since the current machines leave no paper trail, the results couldn’t be audited to find out if votes simply weren’t counted, or if the touchscreens had failed to display the contest altogether. Democrat Sarah Riggs Amico, who lost the race by just a 52-48 margin, has filed a lawsuit to require the state to investigate and potentially order a new election. In January, a state judge dismissed the case, but Amico and her fellow plaintiffs say they will appeal.
Democrat Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost last year’s election to Kemp, and her Fair Fight Action group have mobilized against the move to purchase ES&S machines and have organized an ad campaign against it. However, Republicans did add several provisions to the voting machine bill to address several of the concerns that had pushed Abrams and Democrats to file multiple lawsuits to combat voter suppression measures last year.
Those provisions include requiring 30-day notice of any changes to polling places and prohibiting changes within 60 days of an election; requiring officials to mail voters a provisional ballot if their absentee ballot signature doesn’t appear to match the one on file; notifying voters before their registrations are canceled; and relaxing Georgia’s draconian “exact-match” law, which had suspended tens of thousands of voters’ registrations whose applications to register had even trivial discrepancies—like a misplaced hyphen—with information in government databases.