Georgia judge rules against activists in ballot secrecy suit

A judge has declined to order election officials in a Georgia county to use hand-marked paper ballots after election integrity activists raised concerns that the state’s new voting machines violate voters’ right to a secret ballot.

In a lawsuit filed last week in Sumter County Superior Court against the five members of the county election board, the activists said the machines’ large, bright, vertical touchscreens and large font allow other people in the room to see a voter’s selections.

In denying an emergency motion seeking a switch to hand-marked paper ballots, Sumter County Superior Court Judge Rucker Smith wrote in an order signed Monday that the activists hadn’t proven that it will “impossible or impracticable” for the election officials to arrange the voting machines “in a manner that protects the secrecy of the ballot while allowing sufficient monitoring.”

The judge wrote that it is not his responsibility to determine how the machines should be configured, but that it is the responsibility of the election officials to comply with Georgia law.

Georgia lawmakers last year passed a law providing for a new voting system and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in July awarded a contract to Dominion Voting Systems.

The new system replaces the outdated paperless touchscreen machines and election management system the state had been using since 2002. The new touchscreen voting machines are connected to printers that produce a paper ballot that voters feed into a scanner that reads and tallies the votes.

Officials with the secretary of state’s office, which oversees elections, have acknowledged that there are legitimate privacy concerns with the new machines. They recently sent precinct layout diagrams to county election officials to illustrate how machines could be arranged to help with those concerns.

The lawsuit says those layouts don’t work because they don’t completely protect a voter’s selections from the view of other voters and don’t allow poll workers to see the machines to prevent tampering as required by law.

The lawsuit was filed by the Coalition for Good Governance, an election integrity group, and three individual Georgia voters who are members of the group.

Coalition executive director Marilyn Marks said Monday that she was in Sumter County looking to see whether election officials were able to meet with all the requirements of the law as early voting opened for the presidential primary.

“They had assured the judge that the election board of Sumter County would be able to protect the absolute secrecy of the ballot, and we do not believe that they can,” Marks said in a phone interview.

To comply with both ballot secrecy and anti-tampering requirements, Marks said, machines would have to be placed far apart with the voter’s back to the wall. Many polling places don’t have enough space to accommodate a sufficient number of machines arranged that way, she said.

The lawsuit said a clear violation of the voters’ constitutional right to a secret ballot could cause an election to be declared null and void.