Georgia's Kemp wants verifiable voting, but not right away

- Republican gubernatorial nominee Brian Kemp says Georgia's aging electronic voting machines should be replaced, coming around to a position critics say he's resisted for eight years as the state's top elections official.

There's just one thing - Kemp says it can't be done in time for his own election this November.

The secretary of state is asking companies for proposals to implement new machines that produce verifiable paper records in time for the next presidential election in 2020.

Meanwhile, he's dismissing experts who say the electronic machines are susceptible to hacking and that there's no way to confirm the accuracy of their vote counts. Kemp is defending the system in place since 2002 as "accurate and secure" enough for this fall's elections, even though it produces no paper backups that can be audited to make sure each voter's choice is reflected in the tally.

Voting-integrity advocates have asked a federal judge to force Kemp to use a new paper-based balloting system in time for the November midterms. Attorneys for Kemp's office responded in court this week that Georgia would be "plunged into chaos" if ordered to move that fast.

Secretary of State spokeswoman Candice Broce says the system is "accurate and secure, but we must plan for its eventual replacement."

"There is not enough time to acquire the right inventory, train local elections officials, educate voters, and ensure the necessary safeguards to prevent chaos at the polls if a judge orders Georgia to convert to a new system virtually overnight," her statement said.

That may be true, but only because Kemp put Georgia in this position, says Sara Henderson, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, a government watchdog group that has filed a brief supporting the lawsuit's call for paper ballots. She said Kemp dismissed security warnings for years, only to "pull a 180 on paper ballots" as he mounts his bid for governor. Kemp faces Democrat Stacey Abrams in November.

A bill that would have moved the state to a paper-based system by 2020 was considered by the Georgia legislature this past session, but stalled in March and failed to garner enough votes for passage.

Broce said Kemp has been clear that voting machines are secure but need to be replaced and has taken action despite none being taken by the legislature. She pointed to a pilot project that tested paper ballots last November in municipal elections in Conyers, Georgia.

"Kemp is leading efforts to make a responsible move in the right direction," Broce said.

Georgia is one of only a handful of states that rely on touchscreens with no auditable paper trail. Delaware, New Jersey, South Carolina and Louisiana use similar systems, and eight more have "a significant percentage of voters" using them, according to Marian Schneider, president of Verified Voting, a voting integrity group.

Kemp's office issued its request on Aug. 8, asking voting machine companies for information about potential replacements. It says the new system should include paper ballots marked by hand and fed into an optical scanner for tabulation, ballot-marking devices that record votes on paper and are then scanned and tabulated, or a combination of the two. It also asks for estimated costs of the necessary hardware, software, licenses, implementation, training and maintenance.

"Georgia plans to begin using the new voting system by the 2020 Presidential Preference Primary," the request says, after a commission created by Kemp determines "the solution that is in the best interest of the Secretary of State" and makes a recommendation to the legislature.

The same day, Kemp sent a different message to The Associated Press: "Georgians should know that their votes count because our voting equipment remains accurate and secure," Kemp's statement said in response to the lawsuit. "The hysteria of some people seeking to force Georgia to switch to an all paper ballot system is based on misinformation, and making this change would spend money to create problems that we should avoid."

Experts say Kemp is ignoring ample evidence that the system is vulnerable to hackers capable of making changes that leave no trace and can't be audited without paper records.

"Kemp is on the extreme fringes of election officials who do not take threats to election security seriously," said Richard DeMillo, a professor of computing at Georgia Institute of Technology who has called for Georgia's system to be replaced. "What he calls 'misinformation' is in reality an overwhelming body of evidence. Other states, when confronted with the same evidence, have decertified their insecure touchscreen voting machines and replaced them with more secure alternatives."

U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg has yet to decide on the Coalition for Good Governance's motion to order a new system installed in time for November.

Virginia decertified similar voting machines just two months before statewide and municipal elections last November, which included a gubernatorial race won by Democrat Ralph Northam. But the touchscreen voting machines only made up a portion of the machines used in Virginia at the time, while Georgia uses the machines in all 159 counties.

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Associated Press writer Kate Brumback contributed to this report.

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