ATLANTA, GA – Voters and election supervisors testing Georgia's new voting machines gave favorable reviews Tuesday, despite some opening glitches reported by five of six pilot counties, as the state rushes to meet a court-ordered deadline to retire its outdated, paperless system before any votes are cast in 2020.
State election officials piloted the $106 million system that combines touchscreens with paper ballots in six mostly rural counties holding elections for mayors, city councils and school boards. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger plans to use the new machines in all 159 counties for Georgia's presidential primaries in March.
Georgia elections next year will be closely watched nationally after the officials faced a torrent of criticism in 2018. Problems included hours-long waits at some polling sites, security breaches that left voters' registration information exposed and accusations that strict ID matching requirements and registration errors suppressed turnout. That led to lawsuits and changes in state law that included switching election systems.
Judges ordered two counties testing the new equipment to keep polls open late, and a third county kept a single precinct open 30 extra minutes, after electronic poll books used to check in voters malfunctioned as polls opened Tuesday morning.
Decatur County elections supervisor Carol Heard said voting was delayed about 45 minutes before the software glitch was fixed. Lowndes County quickly switched to a paper registration list for check-in, causing minimal delays for voters, said elections supervisor Deb Cox. She said polls would stay open an extra 45 minutes.
"Everything is up and running swimmingly," Cox said Tuesday afternoon. "It's rather dull right now."
A judge added a half hour of voting time at one precinct in Carroll County because of a similar check-in glitch, said election supervisor Greg Rigby. Two additional counties reported the same problem, but officials said there were no delays to require extending voting hours.
Raffensperger told The Associated Press he was getting positive feedback from voters. He said any problems were "small issues, and that's really why you do pilots — to work out any kinks or bugs that you might have to get ready for the big day of the presidential primary."
A federal judge in August upped the pressure . U.S. District Court Judge Amy Totenberg gave Georgia until Jan. 1 to retire the election system in use since 2002, calling it "seriously flawed."
Thomas McCoy, a 55-year-old machinist, cast his first votes on one of the new machines Tuesday in Cartersville. He called the new system "great, easy," and said he was glad to be rid of the paperless machines after one malfunctioned on him in a prior election.
"This one I could actually print it out and look at it and knew right off the bat this was where I was going," McCoy said.
However, a positive trial run Tuesday isn't likely to satisfy advocates for greater election integrity. They insist the new system remains vulnerable and fails to deliver the auditable results they demand.
"Even if everything goes smoothly, that doesn't solve the problems," said Marilyn Marks, executive director of the Coalition for Good Governance.
The new machines work similarly to the old ones, with voters making choices on touchscreens.
But the new machines also print a paper ballot listing each vote cast and a computer code designed to match those choices. That printout is inserted into a scanner that reads the code and stores the votes electronically for tabulation. Printouts are retained in case an election must be audited later.
Rigby said he had to swap out "three or four" of the new voting machines that malfunctioned in Carroll County. He said one that wouldn't accept cards to load voters' ballots, and another shut down and rebooted as a voter was using it.
In Decatur County, Heard said a few voters making final checks caught mistakes. The erroneous ballots were voided and they cast new ones.
"We had two spoiled ballots, which shows me at least two voters paid attention to their ballots after they printed them out," Heard said. "So that's a good sign. It means there's that opportunity" to correct errors.
But Marks said poll observers for the Coalition for Good Governance saw many voters scan ballots without bothering to check them for accuracy. If computer-generated ballots are cast without voters reviewing them, she said, audits are meaningless because "you don't know what the voter intended."
Advocates, including Marks' group, and individual Georgia voters who sued over the state's old machines are now challenging the new ones in court. They are asking the judge to stop the statewide rollout of the new machines.
Cobb County in suburban Atlanta ran a different test Tuesday, using hand-marked paper ballots that are scanned electronically. The judge ordered it tested as a fallback in case Georgia's new machines aren't ready for the March primaries.
Bynum reported from Savannah, Georgia.