Georgia revamps voting systems for election

Libby Seger and two other Young Democrats protest paper ballots amid students being eligible to cast their ballot in the presidential primary election in Student Center East. Photo by Hannah Jones | The Signal

Democratic presidential candidates are feeling the pressure in the final weeks of campaigns throughout the primary election process.

With fierce debates and early voting underway, tensions between candidates have risen.

Back in January, candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren butted heads during a Democratic debate, in which Warren accused Sanders of calling her “a liar on national television,” following Sander’s denying having told Warren that a woman couldn’t beat President Donald Trump.

Twenty-five candidates have dropped out of the race, according to The New York Times, leaving just Sanders, Joe Biden and Tulsi Gabbard to compete for the Democratic nomination. 

According to The New York Times, Sanders is the frontrunner in key ways: Sanders’ national polling average is 29%, and the next closest candidate is Biden, polling at 17%. Additionally, Sanders is leading in weekly news coverage and individual contributions to his campaign, which currently rests at $121 million. However, Biden has secured roughly 70 more delegates than Sanders.

Amid the political rollercoaster, Georgia is implementing a new statewide voting system for the primary election. With 33,100 new ballot machines, this change marks the single largest implementation of a new voting system in U.S. history, according to GPB News

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger partnered with the Atlanta Press Club to showcase the new voting machines, which he calls “similar but different”: For the first time in 18 years, Georgia voters will cast a paper ballot. The process begins electronically, in which the voter selects their chosen candidate on a touchscreen polling machine.

Raffensperger said the machines are user-friendly and secure. He explained that voters have to deselect the chosen candidate to change their vote, meaning there’s a low chance of user error.

Once the selection process is completed, a paper ballot is printed. This ballot contains a QR code, which includes their votes, and a written summary of the voter’s selections. Once the voter is satisfied, they will place their ballot into a scanner, which saves the ballot as a PDF and stores the hardcopy within a locked compartment. 

Following the demonstration, Mark Niesse, a reporter from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, led an interview with Raffensperger. 

Raffensperger said there are 7 million Georgians registered to vote, and he expects up to 5 million people to vote in the primaries. 

“We believe when people participate in the system, it’s just healthier for society, and it’s a great way of exercising that you are a free American citizen,” Raffensperger said.

Niesse expressed voters’ concerns regarding cybersecurity and verification of the ballot’s QR code, which the human eye can only see as a series of black blocks. 

Raffensperger assured the attendees that the system has been thoroughly checked and verified through a partnership with the Augusta University Cyber Institute. 

Students Libby Seger and John Peterson are vocal within the political landscape and have expressed their concerns regarding the new voting machines. 

Seger is the president of Young Democrats at Georgia State, and Peterson co-founded Georgia State’s chapter of Students Demand Action. 

Seger attended Raffensperger’s demonstration at the Commerce Club. She was one of three people protesting the new machines and held signs, which read, “Electronic voter-suppression, hand-marked paper ballots.” 

Seger and Peterson believe that Georgia should revert to hand-marked paper ballots.

“They are verifiable, they are non-hackable, and it gives the voter opportunity to look at their vote and circle in who they are voting for and have confidence in it,” Seger said. “[These machines] give us no way to verify that what you clicked on the machine, and the words on the bottom of the page are actually what’s in the QR code.”

Just days before the implementation of the new machines, Peterson, Seger and other students attended a State Election Board meeting to protest. 

Seger said each student voiced their concerns during the public comment section and held signs stating, “Violation at the polls,” and barcodes on their mouths. 

Seger and Peterson described the experience as powerful, with a positive response from the crowd and even a feature in The AJC

Seger believes their appearance was influential because, before this demonstration, Peterson and herself were the only young people attending the meetings. 

“How much more powerful than to bring the young people there?” Seger said. “So, I think bringing up a really powerful, diverse group of student leaders really shook them. They did not see it coming.” 

Another qualm with the new voting process, as mentioned by Niesse and Peterson, is the disconnect between the large touchscreens and voting laws. 

Most state constitutions, including Georgia’s, stipulate that voters are entitled to cast a secret ballot, meaning that voters should be protected from others seeing their vote.

U.S. law also prohibits tampering with the voting machines, meaning poll workers should be able to roam the polling area to prevent foul play. 

While some fear that the new machines will contradict these laws, State Election Director Chris Harvey said that “it’s not an either-or [situation].” 

“We’ve provided diagrams and written instruction [for polling stations] that encouraged them to use common sense, geometry and room engineering, so they maximize privacy for the voters,” Harvey said. “A private ballot is guaranteed by the constitution, and I don’t think they’re all completely equal values; I think privacy is more important.”

Peterson worries that the new polling machines will contradict pre-existing laws and stipulations. 

“The design of the new machines creates a situation where poll workers are having to choose which laws to break,” Peterson said. “They can either enforce laws that allow them to defend the machines against tampering, or they can enforce the Georgia State Constitution, which requires that all votes are done in secret.” 

Peterson adds that if the Secretary of State’s office has put “our government in the position that they have to choose which laws to break, it’s a fundamental failure on the part of Brad Raffensperger, and honestly he should probably resign.”

As the election is underway, Raffensperger encourages all registered voters to cast a vote.

Seger added that “our generation has so many important issues facing us,” and a sound, secure election is essential.

“We have so many issues we are fighting for coming up that if we don’t have safe elections, we can’t elect leaders that are going to go through with the promises that we’re voting for them for,” Seger said. “Safe and secure elections are the basis of a democracy.” 

Eligible student voters can visit Student Center East to cast their ballot in the presidential primary election.