Activists cite tabulation flaw in mail-in ballots in multiple Georgia counties

A man votes in Georgia's Primary Election on June 9, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

Faulty software or poorly calibrated vote-tabulation scanners used to count mailed-in ballots in this week’s chaotic Georgia primary may have prevented thousands of votes from being counted, election officials and voting integrity activists say.

The issue was identified in at least four counties, DeKalb, Morgan, Clarke and Cherokee, according to officials who discovered them, including activists who have sued the state for alleged election mismanagement.

“The fact that it is in multiple counties tells me that it’s probably systemic,” said Richard DeMillo, a Georgia Tech computer scientist who has testified for the plaintiffs, because identical scanners and software were used to count all absentee ballots across the state. DeMillo said the only way to know for sure is through audits.

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All three panelists agreed to add the unregistered votes to the electronic tally, said Dufort. But on Thursday, the county elections board voted 3-2 not to audit the rest of the roughly 3,000 absentee ballots. The other two panelists, both Republicans, did not return emails and phone calls seeking comment.

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“It is a head-in-the-sand approach,” Dufort complained.

In Clarke County, vote review panelist Adam Shirley estimated at least 30 ballots out of about 300 flagged for anomalies had votes that “the system had not marked at all, that had not processed at all.”

Shirley, a Democrat, recommended a review of all 15,000 absentee ballots.

In an email Friday to fellow board members, county election board chair Jesse Evans said the problem should be addressed before results are certified.

He quoted Shirley as saying “it’s not just possible but probable that a ballot whose voter had clearly but not completely marked their vote would not have its votes counted by the software” and that he was disturbed the software did not flag the uncounted votes.

“We only noticed them by sheer luck as we were adjudicating other, flagged contests on ballots,” Shirley wrote to Evans.

In Cherokee County, the problem was detected in less than 5% of the flagged ballots, said an elections official who spoke on condition they not be further identified, citing fear of political harassment. The official said the number of flagged ballots was in the hundreds.

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In DeKalb County, review panel member Elizabeth Burns estimated finding between 20-50 uncounted votes on 530 flagged ballots and said her team had so far only reviewed half its 100,000 absentee ballots. Like Shirley, she said her team had stumbled upon the issue. She said she wondered if other counties were even aware of it.

“Maybe not everyone has been as thorough as us and noticed this,” she said.

“The detection of this major problem was only because of diligent citizen oversight. The officials charged with the duty to fully test the equipment recklessly failed to responsibly do so, or to audit it,” said Marilyn Marks, executive director of the Coalition for Good Governance, which is demanding in court that the state scrap the ballot-marking devices.

Dominion spokeswoman Kay Stimson referred questions to the state, but said in an email that her company’s systems “are designed to support robust post-election audits, and we support them as a recommended best practice for elections.”

Sterling, the state official, said authorities are willing to consider audits if merited.

Voting security expert Harri Hursti said inadequate pre-election testing may be the cause of the issue. A fix could be as simple as adjusting the contrast settings in the image-capturing software. Or it could be a different coding issue.

Amber McReynolds, CEO of the nonprofit Vote at Home that promotes voting by mail, said it may have been possible to avoid the unregistered vote issue by placing the software at the highest sensitivity for discerning markings. The Dominion election system used in Georgia is used in many states with tough standards like Colorado, she said.

It was, however, denied certification by Texas, which cited “multiple hardware and software issues” identified by state-appointed examiners. They cited a complex installation process and one called the suite “fragile and error prone.”

The system is proprietary, however, and Hursti said it has never been subjected to an independent security review.