Despite apparent conflict of interest, Georgia’s SAFE Commission is poised to recommend a new touchscreen barcode balloting system that will cost taxpayers more than three times as much as hand marked paper ballots & scanners, while providing less security.
By Jennifer Cohn
December 11, 2018
Tomorrow, Georgia’s SAFE Commission will conduct a meeting to approve the replacement of the state’s terrible touchscreen voting system with a new terrible touchscreen voting system called the ExpressVote. This system generates computer-marked paper printouts (many call them “paper ballots”) with barcodes that are then counted on scanners. Although these paper printouts include human readable text purporting to summarize the voter’s selections, the barcode, which humans can’t read, is the only part of the printout actually counted by the scanner. According to Computer Science Professor Richard DeMillo (Georgia Institute of Technology), the barcode constitutes a new potential attack vector for malevolent actors, as it can be manipulated to instruct the scanner to flip or otherwise alter votes.
Proponents of these new generation touchscreen systems sometimes claim that the addition of a new attack vector, the barcode, makes no difference as long as robust manual audits of the human readable text on the barcoded paper printouts are conducted. But Georgia does not require manual audits at all, and there is no reason to assume the state will ever require them for all federal and state races, much less before the next major election in 2020.
Moreover, a recent scientific study shows that, even when instructed, most voters won’t review the human readable text on these paper printouts and won’t notice deletions or additions to the printouts even if they undertake such review. This means that malevolent actors could program or hack the ExpressVote so that it produces corrupted paper printouts, and most voters won’t notice the difference. It is impossible to conduct a meaningful manual audit based on corrupted paper printouts.
Thus, according to Wenke Lee, co-executive director of Georgia Tech’s Institute for Information Security and Privacy, the “consensus approach among the cybersecurity research community” is that hand marked paper ballots and scanners are preferable to computer-marked barcoded so-called “paper ballots” and scanners. During a recent interview on the BradCast, for example, David Jefferson of Verified Voting stated, “[T]here’s voting in the precinct, which should be on paper ballots and, frankly, I prefer hand marked paper ballots too by the way. So I endorse your idea that if you’re going to vote in person at the precinct, the best system is to hand mark the paper ballot, which then gets scanned and counted electronically, but is subject to auditing after the election…” (See linked interview at 48:20.)
Similarly, UC Berkeley Statistics Professor Philip Stark, the inventor of Risk Limiting Audits (a type of robust post-election manual election audit), recently remarked that, “For voters without disabilities, hand-marked paper ballots may be substantially more usable than ballot-marking devices (BMDs) for this purpose [conducting meaningful manual audits], especially if the BMD prints only a summary ballot, rather than a full-face ballot.” (The paper printouts produced by the ExpressVote system under consideration in Georgia are summary ballots, not full-face ballots.)
Likewise, Computer Science and election expert Andrew Appel of Princeton University published a recent article titled “Why Voters Should Mark Ballots by Hand.”
In addition to security concerns, like all touchscreen systems, the ExpressVote system would enable corrupt election officials to manufacture long lines in districts of their choosing because it limits the number of people who can vote at once to the number of machines at the polling place. For this same reason, even without corrupt intent, touchscreen systems are known to cause longer lines than hand marked paper ballots and scanners, “where the only limit to the number of people who can fill in their ballots concurrently is the number of pens and paper ballots at the polling station.”
The ExpressVote system will also cost taxpayers more than three times as much as hand marked paper ballots and scanners — $100 million verses $30 million — and thus constitutes a boondoggle for its supplier, voting machine vendor Election Systems & Software, LLC (ES&S). ES&S was founded by an individual who previously served as president of Global Election Systems (later re-named Diebold Election Systems), where he hired a convicted felon to program the Diebold GEMS election management system, which is the system that Georgia bought in 2002 and uses to this day. In 2004, the United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team released a Cyber Security Bulletin concerning the Diebold GEMS central tabulator, a component of the Diebold GEMs election management system, stating that, “a vulnerability exists due to an undocumented backdoor account, which could [allow] a local or remote authenticated user [to] modify votes [emphasis added].”
The Georgia election director who helped choose and implement this system in 2002 is now a Sr. VP at ES&S, where she defends ES&S equipment failures and hopes to persuade the state to buy the ExpressVote. Meanwhile, ES&S has donated more than $30,000 to the Republican State Leadership Committee since 2013, a glaring conflict of interest that should itself disqualify ES&S from consideration.
Of similar concern, David Dove (Governor-elect Brian Kemp’s former chief of staff and current transition team member) was among those election officials who attended an ES&S meeting on the Las Vegas strip last year. It is unknown whether Dove or other Georgia election officials have sat on ES&S’s advisory board itself, whether they have taken other such trips, and whether ES&S paid for any of those trips, as it did for officials in New York and Pennsylvania who are currently under investigation for this behavior. The SAFE Commission members must investigate and answer these questions before recommending more ES&S equipment.
Georgia voters should attend the Commission meeting tomorrow to demand hand marked paper ballots (counted on scanners or by hand), with touchscreens only for ADA use. They should also demand an investigation into the relationship between ES&S on the one hand and David Dove and other current or former Georgia officials on the other hand. I recommend that they email Commission members before tomorrow as well. Contact information and meeting logistics are provided below.
Email addresses of Commission members:
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Logistics for 12/12/18 SAFE Commission Meeting:
237 Coliseum Dr Macon
I. CALL TO ORDER (10A)
II. PRESENTATIONS (10:20A-12P)
III. LUNCH (COMMISSION ONLY)
IV. DISCUSSION ON RECOMMENDATIONS (12:45–3:30P)
V. PUBLIC COMMENT (3:30P)