The power to vote – literally – carries a cost

For Stephens County, that cost just increased by $30,500, as county commissioners, at the Feb. 11 regular meeting, unanimously approved the expenditure in order to rewire the Stephens County Senior Center – the county’s sole polling location – so that it is able to handle the electrical draw of the state-mandated new voting machinery.

“We have to rewire the Senior Center to handle the amps needed by the new voting equipment. This is a problem all over the State of Georgia, I know of another county that had to spend $68,000 on rewiring. Everyone is having the same problem, and we’ve been jumping through hoops to resolve it,” County Administrator Phyllis Ayers told ConnectLocal.News Tuesday afternoon, Feb. 11.


A part of the reason the new voting system has a higher electrical draw than the old system is that there are now several components, instead of the single-machine system previously in use.


“You’ve got more machines that need to be plugged in. You’ve got your voting machines, the printers, the scanners, and you’ve got the cyber-power battery packs,” Ayers said. “If my Buildings and Grounds Director had not been here, unloading the equipment, and could see what the amps were - and he was calculating it up in his head as he was going by and he come down here and said ‘where’s the power coming from?’”


The $30,500 bid to complete the rewiring of the Senior Center, submitted by local electrical contractor Henry Hayes, will be paid out of contingency funds, along with funding for pouring a concrete pad to hold the generator used to power the equipment and a few other minor related expenditures.


“There is a grant where the state will consider reimbursing you back those expenses,” she said. “So we’re trying to keep up with that, and will apply for the grant.”


The replacement of existing voting machines was mandated when the state awarded a $107M contract to Denver-based Dominion Voting System in July 2019, and the state began delivery of the new machines to Georgia’s 2,600 voting precincts in the fall of last year While the new machines are being paid for at the state level, and counties are not being charged for the new machines, incidental costs such as new tables and privacy screens will need to be covered by counties – and now, for Stephens County and many other Georgia counties, that cost includes a significant expenditure on rewiring polling locations to be able to handle the energy draw of the new machines – a concern, and a cost, that was not mentioned by the state when the mandate was put in place.


The new voting machines, which will be moved to the Senior Center following early voting on March 2, are currently at the Stephens County Historic Courthouse in Toccoa under lock and key, Ayers said.


“We rekeyed the two offices and the only person that has a key now is our elections Registrar (Eureka Gober),” she explained “Even I don’t have a key now.”


The Registrar’s office which recently moved from the courthouse annex to the Historic Courthouse due to the deteriorating condition of the annex building, will be conducting early voting for the PPP on March 2 in the upstairs courtroom at the Stephens County Historic Courthouse.


“We’re good on amperage here at the courthouse,” Ayers assured.



The Back Story

In 2002, Georgia laid claim to electoral history, becoming the first state in the nation to make the transition to fully electronic voting machines.


That transition did not, however, result in the smooth sailing envisioned by proponents of the new system. Years of voting irregularities and alleged security issues led to the April 2019 passage of House Bill 316, which authorized the purchase of a new touchscreen voting machine system, and made its usage mandatory statewide in time for the 2020 Presidential Preference Primary. HB 316 also outlined the specifics of the transition, including the mandate for one voting machine for every 250 registered voters per precinct. Georgia will now become the first state in the nation to switch entirely to this brand of paper-and-tech hybrid election system.


Following an in-depth review and scoring of submitted bids for the project, Georgia awarded the contract for the system overhaul to the nation’s second-largest election systems company, Dominion Voting Systems. Dominion, based in Denver with development branches in Canada and Belgrade, Serbia, was awarded the contract despite the fact that states existing provider, Election Systems & Software, which is the nations’s largest provider, received the highest technical rating in the bid review. Dominion received the second-highest rating. Dominion’s bid was $107M; Election Systems & Software’s bid was $143M.


While the delivery of the new voting machine systems and their installation appears to be be progressing according to schedule to meet HB316’s deadline, recent issues such as the adequate amperage ratings at polling locations being experienced by a large number of counties is again raising concerns about the company’s ability to meet the admittedly tight deadline.


“What Georgia is trying to do basically blows my mind,” said Dwight Shellman, an election official at the Colorado Secretary of State’s office. Colorado had also selected Dominion as their provider when they made a similar transition in 2016. “We had 2 1/2 years to do it, and it was challenging. I can’t imagine implementing the number of counties Georgia has in, what, two months? Three months?”


Dominion voting machines are used in 30 states and Puerto Rico, according to John Poulos, Chief Executive Officer and co-founder of Dominion Voting Systems, in Jan. 2020 testimony to the Committee on House Administration.


Similar to the state’s old voting machines, the new system utilizes touchscreen voting stations. Unlike the old system, however, the new touchscreen machine is attached to a printer that prints out a paper ballot, which voters can review before having it scanned by an electronic ballot scanner, and the paper ballots are stored.


As well as a the continuation of a digital vote-casting method, the new voting system includes a digital sign-in process in which voters place their identification before an iPad that will scan the document and access the individuals voter account, after which the voter signs the screen and a ballot is printed with the appropriate ballot items, but with no voter information. The ballot is then inserted into the touchscreen voting machine, and the voter marks their selection on the screen and prints out the completed ballot, which is then fed into a scanner that scans the ballot, records the votes, and saves the paper ballot in a secure bin.


The paper the ballot is printed on contains fibers similar to a $20 bill that make it apparent if an unofficial ballot is introduced into the system.


The system, which is the largest single expenditure by a state on voting equipment, was put in place in several counties in time for November municipal elections in several pilot communities. In the months following the November elections, several concerns have been expressed about the privacy and security of the new machines. However, in November 2019, Secretary of States Office statistics showed that, out of 27,482 votes cast on the new machines in the initial period of use, there were a total of 45 “incidents” of concern.


“...nearly all issues were caused by human error or interaction which can be mitigated through training or identified through testing," the report said.


In a federal lawsuit originally filed in 2017, plaintiffs asked a federal judge to order Georgia to use hand-marked paper ballots to more directly reflect voter intent. Plaintiffs also disliked the fact that the new voting machines scan bar codes instead of the printed-out text of voters’ choices, leading to concerns that voters won’t be able to tell whether their ballot is counted correctly.


“No elector can visually review and confirm whether the bar code accurately conveys their intended selections,” states the complaint in the lawsuit.

U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg, in August, ruled that Georgia election officials must “sunset” the state’s old voting machines after municipal and special elections scheduled for November 2019, specifying that the outdated voting equipment must not be used as a backup if the new system isn’t ready by March’s elections. She said the state must create a contingency plan that relies on hand-marked paper ballots. However, she also denied a motion from the plaintiffs to remove the new voting machines completely and to require paper ballots bubbled in by pen during this year’s elections.

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