Voting Rights Are Being Threatened More Than We Realize

How hand-marked paper ballots in Georgia can help reduce minority voter suppression

Photo: Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

OnOn the first day of the hearing in Curling v. Raffensperger, in the United States District Court of the Northern District of Georgia, state Rep. Jasmine Clark takes the witness stand. Clark testifies that during the July 2018 primary runoff election, poll workers at Lucky Shoals, a polling site in minority-majority Gwinnett County, tried to prevent her from voting because her name did not appear in the electronic polling book.

The plaintiffs in Curling, one of the most important election security cases in the country, contend that Georgia’s use of insufficiently secure DREs violates voters’ rights to due process under the 14th Amendment.

After calling a voter protection hotline for assistance, Clark, who is Black, was finally allowed to cast her ballot on one of the site’s touch screen direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting machines. But the experience made her wonder how many other voters, especially minority voters, were turned away from polling places because of the state’s unreliable electronic voting equipment.

The plaintiffs in Curling, one of the most important election security cases in the country, contend that Georgia’s use of insufficiently secure DREs violates voters’ rights to due process under the 14th Amendment. Among other relief, plaintiffs seek paper polling book backups for electronic poll books, and the implementation of a hand-marked paper ballot system, where voters use pens to mark their choices on paper ballots in a manner similar to how students fill out Scantrons for standardized testing.

Virtually all election integrity experts agree that hand-marked paper ballots are the gold standard for election systems because they are verifiable (voters can see for themselves that their selections reflect their intentions), auditable (the ballots can be stored and examined later for accuracy), and unhackable (voting data can’t easily be breached or altered.)

TThe state’s recent decision to switch to Dominion Voting Systems’ ImageCast X ballot-marking device fails to cure the deep-seated flaws inherent in all electronic voting systems. With ImageCast X, voters still cast their votes on hackable DRE voting machines, and afterward, receive a machine-marked printout with QR codes next to their selections. But human voters can only read the text accompanying the QR codes, not the actual codes the precinct polling place scanners use to tally votes. As such, election integrity experts deem Dominion’s hybrid electronic and paper system as untrustworthy as the completely paperless DRE voting machines Georgia currently employs.

If Judge Amy Totenberg orders the state in Curling to adopt hand-marked paper ballots, Georgians will be assured that their votes are accurately counted in future elections. What’s more, minority voters will be assured that racist programmers can’t manipulate their votes.

VVoter suppression against minority voters can manifest in numerous obvious ways. It occurs, for example, when state or local governments disproportionately purge minority voters from rolls, reject a disproportionate number of minority voters’ mail-in absentee ballots, and attempt to close polling places in predominantly minority communities.

“Voter suppression is happening in dark closed rooms with computers.”

Voter suppression can also take place where we can’t see it: inside the electronic election equipment itself. “There’s an intersection between voter suppression and technology,” says Marilyn Marks, executive director of the Coalition for Good Governance (CGG), one of the plaintiffs in Curling. “Voter suppression is happening in dark closed rooms with computers.”

It may have even happened in Georgia’s 2018 midterm election.

In November 2018, the lieutenant governor race between Republican Geoff Duncan and Democrat Sarah Riggs Amico yielded a statistically significant drop-off or undervote rate. A large number of voters who cast their votes on DRE voting machines (as opposed to mail-in absentee ballots) selected a candidate in the governor’s race and seemed to skip voting for lieutenant governor, the second race on the ballot.

It’s not uncommon for voters to skip voting in smaller, down-the-ballot races. But the undervote rate for the lieutenant governor’s race in Georgia, typically, 0.8%, was about 4% in November 2018. Some 160,000 voters declined to vote in a race where Duncan bested Amico by only 123,000 votes. What’s more, the undervote rate seemed to rebound in races farther down the ballot. More Georgia voters voted in the agriculture commissioner race than in the lieutenant governor race.

Here’s the kicker. An extensive inspection of the undervote data in the lieutenant governor race revealed a startling pattern: Counties with the highest number of Black voters had the highest undervote rate compared to counties with the highest number of White voters.

It’s not yet known what caused the stark racial disparity in the undervote rate — whether it was malfunctioning DREs, a defect, or erroneous programming. But the findings are beyond alarming. They suggest that votes cast in minority precincts are especially at risk for programmer manipulation. CGG filed a lawsuit challenging the results of the race and is awaiting a decision by the Georgia Supreme Court as to whether the case will move forward.

The jarring abnormality in the lieutenant governor race is just one more reason why Georgia needs hand-marked paper ballots — they are the only way to eliminate the risk of programmer manipulation of voting results in minority communities. Here’s hoping Totenberg takes this into account before issuing her decision in Curling.

Journalist, critic & columnist at ZORA. Essay collection SOUTHBOUND (UGA Press) & debut novel THE PARTED EARTH (Hub City Press), spring ’21.

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