Don't Ring the Bellwether Yet!
by Mimi Kennedy
A special election in Georgia’s 6th congressional district to replace Rep. Tom Price, Trump’s new Health and Human Services Secretary, will take place April 18. Already, it’s being touted as a “bellwether” election – a predictor of Americans’ choices in the 2018 mid-terms.
Polls and predictions may benefit gamblers, financial planners, and political operatives. But they depress voters. We vote to improve the country as we see it, not justify some Smartest Guy or Gal in the Room. Sometimes, we vote with great emotion. Then, a constant barrage of “loser” messages adds lethal weight to the obstacles we already face at midterm: attack ads as our main source of information; pressure from family and friends that can be avoided by disengaging; too little information about voting rules. Believing our cause is lost can be a powerful disincentive, while predicted wins can be self-fulfilling prophecy. We all want to be on a winning team.
So, it once again behooves me - pun intended - to publish track conditions for this horse race. Georgia’s 6th congressional district involves three counties north of Atlanta: Cobb, DeKalb, and Fulton. They use paperless Diebold voting machines, Georgia’s statewide system, for voting. The Diebold AccuVote TS (TouchScreen) is one of the oldest computer voting machines in the nation. Georgia acquired them in 2002, under the Help America Vote Act, which failed to mandate paper ballots or paper “trails”. On touchscreens, voters cast digital votes that are stored on memory cards. The votes are tallied invisibly and internally. All memory cards are tallied together in central county tabulators. Results are whatever Diebold says they are. Trade secrecy laws protect its software from public inspection, and there’s no mandatory audit law in Georgia, so nobody’s required to look.
But guess what - the FBI is looking. Kennesaw State University, Georgia’s election operations subcontractor, reported that their digital voter registration rolls were hacked, as were voter databases at the DNC and elsewhere during the 2016 primary campaign. The effect of Kennesaw’s hack is not publicly known. The FBI investigation is ongoing. VerfiedVoting sent a letter to GOP Secretary of State Brian Kemp, as did Common Cause, urging use of paper ballots for April 18. Kemp spokesperson Candice Broce said, referring to hand-counting the ballots, “We are not going to do that.” (Kemp also refused public inspection of voter rolls and is being sued by the NAACP for purging voters in ways that violate federal law.)
Paper ballots do not require hand-counting, but the ballots can be publicly recounted and audited, providing capacity to catch computer crime. Georgia’s Diebold scanners count paper absentee ballots in every election; three counties could easily deploy them to scan a paper ballot election, after which manual verification is possible. Individual voters can request Georgia absentee ballots for NR – No Reason. But the state’s online absentee application omits NR from its checklist, so it’s useless if you don’t fit another category and don’t want to lie. Absentee paper ballots can be requested at county offices during the absentee voting period. But you’ll be directed to vote on the DRE provided instead (GA election code 183-1-14-.02). The implication is clear: Georgia doesn’t want you voting on paper.
Georgia’s 6th District special election, if conducted as planned, will be a bellwether of nothing but America’s ongoing naiveté about election security in jurisdictions whose laws and procedures defy, by any means necessary, verification of the vote-count.