Enlarge /. A polling station worker holds a sticker that reads "I am a Georgia voter" during the June 9, 2020, Atlanta primaries.
A federal judge in Georgia has ordered election officials to print paper backups of voter records so that voting can continue even if the digital voter check-in system fails. This is a win-win for plaintiffs who have argued that deficiencies in the Georgian Electronic Voting Book System (EPB) hampered voting in the June primary and could do so again in November.
There has been much discussion over the past 20 years about the risk that electronic voting machines will compromise the security and integrity of elections. However, less attention has been paid to electronic voting books – another digital system that can undermine electoral integrity if it malfunctions.
Respondents use EPBs to verify a voter's eligibility to vote and then check-in the voter. Malfunctions in these systems can slow the voting process so much that some people give up voting altogether. By targeting areas where most of the people vote for a particular candidate or party, a hacker could potentially make a narrow choice just by causing malfunctions in electronic voting books. And while voting machines are to be kept off the Internet, electronic voting books are often online for the entire election day.
There's no evidence anyone purposely exploited this potential vulnerability in American elections, and maybe no one ever will. But at least electronic voting books make the American elections more complex and more fragile. It is possible that, as with voting machines, the old paper system was actually the better choice.
Georgia's electronic voting books caused problems
Georgia has long been a battleground in the electronic voting technology debate. Up until last year, Georgia used old paperless voting machines that did not allow for meaningful post-election verification. Last year, US District Judge Amy Totenberg ordered the state to switch to a paper-based voting system. In the new system Georgia introduced earlier this year, voters cast their votes on a touchscreen voting slip, which then prints a voting slip.
That year, Peach State introduced a new electronic voting book system in addition to voting machines. The KnowInk Poll Pad is an iPad with custom software that allows respondents to verify eligibility and check in voters.
Problems with these machines are not just a theoretical problem. In her ruling on Monday – part of the same case that forced an end to the paperless voting last year – Judge Totenberg cites numerous examples of EPB breakdowns causing hours of delays during the chaotic June 9th Georgia primary
An election observer visited a voting site at the Central Park Recreation Center in the Atlanta area. She reported that "the waiting time to vote at 10:00 was estimated at 4 hours. Voting had almost stalled due to inoperative electronic ballot books." The poll workers were unable to verify eligibility and asked voters to fill out preliminary ballot papers, which dramatically slowed the voting process.
A voter in DeKalb County, also in the Atlanta area, reported that "two PollPads went down and no one voted after waiting an hour after the polls should have opened." At Dunwoody Library in DeKalb County, "voters had waited over an hour" and "voters were not checked in because PollPad equipment was down."
There is no evidence that these machines were hacked. For all signs, the problems with EPBs in the primary phase had more mundane causes such as software errors, network problems or insufficient training of election workers. Whatever the cause, the problems with the EPB have likely prevented some voters from casting a vote. And Judge Totenberg concluded that this was a big problem.
Electronic survey books require paper backups
To prevent these problems from recurring in November, the plaintiffs asked Judge Totenberg to provide each district with a hard copy of the election book data. District officials should already have printouts of voter registration data, but those printouts lacked up-to-date information on who had voted ahead of schedule or requested postal votes. Election workers need this information in order to decide whether a voter can cast a vote. The plaintiffs wanted the officials to print a copy of this updated data in the short window between the last day of the early voting and election day.
Georgia officials argued that it would be too burdensome to print this data for each district. However, they had few good arguments against making the data available online for local officials to print out themselves. Judge Totenberg ordered that.
Georgia is not the only jurisdiction that has suffered from EPB issues. Los Angeles voters faced long lines during the California primary election in March, and a subsequent investigation found that problems with new electronic ballot books were a major culprit. In 2018, problems with EPBs caused problems in South Dakota, Philadelphia, and Indiana's Johnson Counties.
Therefore, for any jurisdiction that relies on electronic voting book software – and there are many – it would be to ensure that paper backups are available at every polling station.