In the past decade, Election Systems & Software (E.S. & S.), the largest manufacturer of voting machines in the country, has routinely wined and dined a select group of state-election brass, which the company called an “advisory board,” offering them airfare on trips to places like Las Vegas and New York, upscale-hotel accommodations, and tickets to live events. Among the recipients of this largesse, according to an investigation by McClatchy published last year, was David Dove, the chief of staff to Georgia’s then secretary of state, Brian Kemp. Kemp, the new governor of Georgia, made news in the midterm elections for his efforts to keep people of color from voting and for overseeing his own election. In March of 2017, when Dove attended an E.S. & S. junket in Las Vegas, Kemp’s office was in the market to replace the state’s entire inventory of voting machines. “It’s highly inappropriate for any election official to be accepting anything of value from a primary contractor,” Virginia Canter, the chief ethics officer at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, told McClatchy. “It shocks the conscience.” (Kathy Rogers, E.S. & S.’s senior vice-president for governmental affairs, told McClatchy that there was nothing untoward about the advisory board, which she said has been “immensely valuable in providing customer feedback.”)
Earlier this month, Georgia’s Secure, Accessible & Fair Elections Commission voted to recommend that the state replace its touch-screen voting machines with newer, similarly vulnerable machines, which could be produced by E.S. & S. at an estimated cost of a hundred million dollars. In doing so, the panel rejected the advice of computer scientists and election-integrity advocates, who consider hand-marked ballots to be the “most reliable record of voter intent,” and also the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, which recommended that all states adopt paper ballots and conduct post-election audits. The practice of democracy begins with casting votes; its integrity depends on the inclusivity of the franchise and the accurate recording of its will. Georgia turns out to be a prime example of how voting-system venders, in partnership with elected officials, can jeopardize the democratic process by influencing municipalities to buy proprietary, inscrutable voting devices that are infinitely less secure than paper-ballot systems that cost three times less.
The influence-peddling that has beset Georgia’s voting-system procurement began years earlier, in 2002, when the legislature eliminated a requirement that the state’s voting machines produce an independent audit trail of each vote cast. That same year, the secretary of state, Cathy Cox, signed a fifty-four-million-dollar contract with the election-machine vender Diebold. The lobbyist for Diebold, the former Georgia secretary of state Lewis Massey, then joined the lobbying firm of Bruce Bowers. The revolving door between the Georgia state government and the election venders was just beginning to spin.
In 2006, a bill requiring a verifiable paper record of each ballot, introduced in the Georgia legislature at the urging of election-integrity advocates, failed after the state’s elections director, Kathy Rogers, opposed it. Rogers, of course, later went to work for E.S. & S. Election-integrity advocates sued in response, challenging the legality of the state’s voting equipment. In the three years that the case wended its way through the courts, where it was eventually dismissed by the Georgia Supreme Court, the new secretary of state, Karen Handel, was found to have received twenty-five thousand dollars in campaign contributions from employees and family members associated with Massey and Bowers’ lobbying firm.
In 2012, Charles Harper, a sod farmer who had been elected to the Georgia House of Representative a decade earlier, became a registered lobbyist in the office of the Georgia secretary of state, Brian Kemp, where he served as legislative director. At the end of 2017, as Kemp was ramping up his campaign for governor, Harper did not renew his lobbying credentials with the secretary of state. Instead, he registered to lobby for E.S. & S. Around the same time, John Bozeman, then the head of legislative affairs for Georgia’s former governor, Sonny Perdue (who is now the Secretary of Agriculture in the Trump Administration), also registered to lobby on behalf of E.S. & S. After Kemp won the governor’s race, in November, he named Harper, whose contract with E.S. & S. ended in June, 2018, to his transition team. Harper is now Kemp’s deputy chief of staff.
While Harper was shilling for E.S. & S., Georgia’s election system was again being challenged in the courts. That suit was decided last September, when Amy Totenberg, a federal judge in the Northern District of Georgia, denied the plaintiffs’ request to compel the state to use paper ballots in the November midterms, on the grounds that their request was made too close to the election. But, Judge Totenberg warned, “Advanced persistent threats in this data-driven world and ordinary hacking are unfortunately here to stay. Defendants will fail to address that reality if they demean as paranoia the research-based findings of national cybersecurity engineers and experts in the field of elections. Nor will surface-level audit procedures address this reality when viruses and malware alter data results and evade or suppress detection.”
In the meantime, Kemp was looking to replace the state’s voting machines. A year before Totenberg’s decision, in August, 2017, he invited Rockdale County to pilot the E.S. & S. ExpressVote system in its municipal elections. A pilot project like the one in Rockdale County, which E.S. & S. paid for, gives venders a competitive advantage when it comes time for legislators to set the terms for what can and can’t be purchased. Edward Perez, a fifteen-year veteran of the commercial election industry who now works on open-source election technology, told me, “What any one of the venders and lobbyists are going to do is they’re going to be working to get the ear of the proper people in the state legislature, most of whom, not surprisingly, are not well schooled in all of the details of election administration.” The Rockdale pilot, Perez said, would have put E.S. & S. “in the catbird seat” when it was time for election officials to consider options for future voting technology. His colleague at the Open Source Election Technology Institute, Gregory Miller, put an even finer point on it. “You can actually structure that request for bid in such a way that you almost have lit up the answer as to who is going to win the contract,” he said. “You almost immediately know that only one vender is going to have a solution for that. This is where the vender lobby comes in.”
Something similar happened last fall in Delaware, where the Voting Equipment Selection Task Force also voted to replace its aging touch-screen machines with a variant of the ExpressVote system. When Jennifer Hill, at Common Cause Delaware, a government-accountability group, obtained all the bids from a public-records request, she found that “the Department of Elections had pretty much tailored the request for proposal in a way that eliminated venders whose primary business was to sell paper-ballot systems.” Hill also noted that a lobbyist for E.S. & S., who was “well-connected in the state,” helped “to shepherd this whole thing through.” Elaine Manlove, the Delaware elections director, told me that the twelve members of the election task force each independently concluded that ExpressVote was the best system for the state. “It’s not a big change for Delaware voters,” she said. “They’re voting on the screen, just like they do now.” (A representative from E.S. & S. told me that the the company “follows all state and federal guidelines for procurement of government contracts.”)
In Delaware and Georgia, voting equipment is purchased and deployed statewide. But, in most states, these decisions are made by counties, which oversee elections. Last year, Franklin County, Ohio, bought ExpressVote machines, as did Johnson County, Kansas. Counties in New Jersey and Arkansas have done so, too. It’s a trend that has election-security experts concerned. “I have started calling all of these things voting computers, because I think that changes the expectations of how well they work,” Duncan Buell, a professor of computer science at the University of South Carolina who has been studying electronic voting systems since 2005, told me. “Any time you introduce computer technology, you introduce the probability that, if there is value, somebody is going to try to hack it. And this is why people are very skeptical—and I’m certainly very skeptical—of using computers for any election any more than is absolutely minimally necessary.”
The ExpressVote machines use what are known as ballot-marking devices. Once a vote is cast on the touch screen, the machine prints out a card that summarizes the voter’s choice, in both plain English and in the form of a bar code. After the voter reviews the card, it is returned to the machine, which records the information symbolized by the bar code. It’s a paper trail, but one that a voter can’t actually verify, because the bar codes can’t be read. “If you’re tallying based on bar codes, you could conceivably have software that [flips] the voter’s choices,” Buell said. “If you’re in a target state using these devices and the computer security isn’t very good, this becomes more likely.” This is less of a concern in states that require manual post-election audits. But neither Georgia nor Delaware do.
On January 4th, when the new Congress introduced its first piece of legislation, H.R. 1, it, too, registered concern about election security. The bill, a five-hundred-and-seventy-one-page laundry list of reforms sought by the Democratic majority, includes a provision that would mandate voting on paper ballots. This is not the first time that members of the House have tried to move the country away from computerized voting machines. Last year, the Democratic congressman Bennie Thompson, of Mississippi, proposed the Election Security Act; a year before, the Republican Mark Meadows, the chair of the right-wing House Freedom Caucus, introduced the Paper Act, which was endorsed by the former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and by Grover Norquist, the president of the conservative organization Americans for Tax Reform. The Senate’s attempt to reform election practices, last year’s Secure Elections Act, had bipartisan support, too, but was killed by the White House before it got out of committee.
Much of the resistance to these proposals is coming from the state level. In early January, the incoming president of the National Association of Secretaries of State (nass), the Republican Paul Pate, of Iowa, told Politico that H.R. 1 was “a huge federal overreach.” The current nass president, the Vermont secretary of state Jim Condos, made it clear to me that, though he personally believes voter-marked paper ballots and post-election audits should be standard practice, he was not able to say this in his official capacity as nass president. “We try to keep partisan politics out of the way,” he said. nass holds its meetings twice a year, and Condos told me that “there is no question that the venders are there and they’re showing their latest and greatest.” In fact, E.S. & S., Hart InterCivic, and Dominion, which together make and service virtually all of the election machines used in the United States, are financial contributors to nass. All are privately held companies and thus largely shielded from financial disclosure. In addition, since 2013, E.S. & S. has donated more than thirty thousand dollars to the Republican State Leadership Committee, a group that, in her book “Dark Money,” the New Yorker writer Jane Mayer calls “a catch-all bank account for corporations interested in influencing state laws.” Last year, Trump successfully nominated Donald Palmer, who, as a former state-election director in Florida and Virginia, was a member of the E.S. & S. advisory board, to be a commissioner at the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, the federal organization that oversees certification of election equipment.
Paper ballots, it should be noted, are not a perfect solution, as New York City voters found out in November, when their two-page ballots jammed the scanners, leading to long lines and wait times. But they are inexpensive, accountable, and intuitive. Except, it seems, for members of Georgia’s Secure, Accessible & Fair Elections Commission. “When I was in Georgia and I met with legislators and election officials and talked to them about using a ballot where you fill in the ovals and then mark it with a pen, or use a ballot-marking device for somebody that is disabled, they didn’t know that that was an option,” Susan Greenhalgh, who is now the policy director of the National Election Defense Coalition, told me. “People literally said to me, ‘Does anybody else in the country do this?’ ” Source