The 2018 midterm elections in Georgia were a stain on the fabric of democracy. Republican candidate for governor Brian Kemp oversaw his own election and engaged in systematic voter suppression as Georgia’s secretary of state. Voting machines in various parts of the state malfunctioned en masse, and many voters in metropolitan Atlanta waited up to three hours to cast their ballots. Georgia’s election officials, haunted by this recent history, are currently pursuing a historic rollout of new voting machines in what may be a swing state come November.
However, in the midst of that massive deployment, the state postponed its presidential primary due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Now, voters who have not yet cast their ballot will need to wait until May 19 if they wish to do so in person.
But the pandemic and its consequent upending of Georgia’s primary may actually have a silver lining: it could very well be the catalyst of a long process that solves the state’s preventable election woes.
I early voted in person for the presidential primary, but for those who must still vote, I encourage you to vote by mail to ensure both the integrity of your vote and your fellow Georgians’ safety during the current public health crisis.
State officials leading the voting equipment revamp are intent on painting the changes as a step toward more election security. The initiative, led by Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, aims to move the state to paper ballots. The rollout came in response to U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg’s 2019 ruling against the state’s continued use of its old, vulnerable voting machines, in which she described them as “unsecure, unreliable and grossly outdated.” Unfortunately, the state’s new voting machines fail to meet Totenberg’s demands by having voters use a tablet to choose their candidates. The voter then prints their selections on a piece of paper, which is then fed into another machine. This is certainly not a full-fledged paper ballot.
The new voting machines should worry Georgians and any believers in the merits of free and fair elections. While they will allow poll workers to audit records of voters’ choices in May and November, the electronic security of the machines themselves is still questionable. A computer science expert who observed the new systems in action during local elections in 2019 was unimpressed, citing the machines’ unreliability after some shut down unexpectedly. Voter privacy is also a concern, which recently spawned a lawsuit against the state. I myself observed as much when voting in early March; I could easily see other voters’ screens from across the room, and cardboard erected around screens failed to ensure privacy while casting a ballot.
Considering the contagious nature of COVID-19, the new machines’ touchscreens may lead to increased transmission and will facilitate a gross violation of social distancing guidelines. If Georgia election officials actually want to secure the state’s vote and guarantee its residents’ health during the primaries, they should encourage mail-in voting. I applaud Raffensperger for his recent announcement that all of Georgia’s registered voters will receive an absentee ballot request form. I encourage his office to provide paid postage for the envelopes and continue promoting mail-in voting.
Even if Georgia’s delayed primary runs smoothly, Kemp and his associates’ past nefarious actions should signal a red flag for election watchdogs everywhere. Even as officials rolled out over 70,000 new machines across the state beginning late last year, a congressional investigation released on Feb. 26 criticized Kemp for his actions prior to and during the 2018 election. Kemp’s misconduct included ignoring reports of canceled voter registration, withholding over a thousand documents related to the investigation into his behavior and even mocking reports of his purging of voter rolls.
U.S. House findings make clear that Kemp corrupted his own election, but the postponement of the primary presents a window of opportunity to restore integrity to Georgia’s elections. The virus could shock Georgia’s system into following other states’ examples. For instance, Oregon famously sends ballots to all its registered voters, who either mail them in or drop them at a collection site to avoid paying postage, and that state enjoys voter turnout higher than almost anywhere else in the country.
Georgia would be wise to learn from both COVID-19’s inconveniences and the examples set by other states by implementing statewide mail-in voting for this year’s elections, both primary and general. The state would meet the paper ballot requirement demanded by Totenberg while also protecting Georgians’ votes and health. State politicians would also have fewer excuses to purge inactive voters from rolls, as voting would be as simple as filling out a ballot at home and either mailing it or dropping it at a local collection site.
Mail-in only voting may be the future of democracy in Georgia and even nationwide, but first, let’s make it a project for the present and get this year’s election right. Whether Georgia’s election officials move the state away from in-person voting or not, you still have the authority to make the right call. Save the trip to the polling place, keep yourself and your fellow Georgians healthy and vote by mail.
Jake Busch (22C) is from Brookhaven, Ga.