In Georgia, primary election chaos highlights a voting system deeply flawed | Miles O'Brien Productions

In Georgia, primary election chaos highlights a voting system deeply flawed

Georgia experienced major problems with its voting processes during a primary election earlier in June. People waited in line up to eight hours to cast ballots, and poll workers struggled with new machines on which they hadn’t been trained due to the pandemic. What do Georgia’s election issues mean for other state primaries — and for American democracy more broadly? PBS NewsHour science correspondent Miles O’Brien reports.


Judy Woodruff:

New York state and Kentucky have their presidential primaries tomorrow.

In Kentucky, there are concerns about whether voters could be facing major delays, long lines, and other problems if turnout is high. Fewer than 200 polling places will be open because of COVID. That’s compared to 3,700 in a typical year.

Earlier this month, Georgia served as the latest example of serious voting problems that could affect elections this fall.

Miles O’Brien has the story.

Miles O’Brien:

It was no walk in the park when Georgians cast their ballots on June 9.

Many voters, disproportionately Democrats and African-Americans, spent six to eight hours in line, patient, yet piqued. At the Central Park Rec Center in Atlanta, I met Amelia Dobbs four hours into a grueling vote-a-thon.

Amelia Dobbs:

So, I’m very disappointed after being a voter for over 50 years. It’s getting worse, worse, and worse. It can’t get any worse than this.

Miles O’Brien:

John Dodson and his partner Yolanda Borras were just ahead of Ms. Dobbs in a line that encircled the park. They were livid.

John Dodson:

It is 9:56. There are now eight, eight, ballots counted.


Eight ballots scanned. Eight.

John Dodson:

This is exercise and patience, but, also, it’s an exercise in will. And if the intention is to break the will, this will, those people are not leaving.

Miles O’Brien:

Inside, beleaguered poll workers struggled with a new, complex voting system that they hadn’t even seen before the election.

In-person training was deemed unsafe in the midst of a pandemic. Among other things, the passwords to log on to the machines, in plain view on the tables, didn’t work.

Marilyn Marks is executive director of the Coalition for Good Governance, an organization focused on election transparency and verifiability.

Marilyn Marks:

We don’t necessarily have fair and secure elections across the United States. And Georgia is the epitome of problem elections. Georgia becomes really the example at almost every level of what is wrong.

Miles O’Brien:

Marks helped lead the charge to usher in a new era of voting in Georgia last year.

For 18 years, the state used electronic voting machines made by Diebold election systems. The machines were widely used across the nation, even though experts proved they were easy for hackers to attack without leaving a trace.


A federal judge is ordering Georgia to stop using its outdated voting machines.

Miles O’Brien:

In August of 2019, a federal judge ordered the state to scrap the flawed machines for something more secure and verifiable.

So, the state spent more than $100 million to supply every county with so-called ImageCast machines made by a Canadian company, Dominion Voting Systems. They are ballot marking devices, meaning voters make selections on a touch screen, and ballots are printed with choices embedded in a Q.R. code and listed in plain English.

The paper ballot is then scanned and counted.

Brad Raffensperger is Georgia’s secretary of state.

Brad Raffensperger:

When you have a paper ballot, no matter how that when it comes about, at the end of the day, you have the paper that you can do the audit from. And then you can audit the election. That’s something I think is more secure, because then we really capture voter intent.

Miles O’Brien:

But election security experts say that is not the case.

Richard DeMillo:

It’s a computer, and you have no idea what’s in the computer, and you have no idea what the computer is doing with the information that you give it.

Miles O’Brien:

Rich DeMillo is a professor of computer science at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He tried to stop Georgia from buying the Dominion system now used in 24 states.

Richard DeMillo:

A ballot marking device is, in the first place, an extremely expensive pencil that will make mistakes, that is prone to failure, that’s prone to misuse. And if it fails, if it’s misused, you have no way of telling.

If you use a ballot marking device, you don’t have the original record of voter intent.

Miles O’Brien:

Are you concerned the system can be hacked?

Brad Raffensperger:

No. We never take anything for granted. We are very vigilant. We understand that elections are tempting targets for hackers.

Miles O’Brien:

Indeed. At the hacker convention DEF CON, they have been making virtual mincemeat of electronic voting machines for years.

Legendary white hat hacker and election security consultant Harri Hursti was part of the exploits.

Harri Hursti:

You can introduce races which don’t appear as when they should be. You can change the design on the screen to be misleading and confusing the voter. When the voter is making the selections, are those selections recorded accurately?

Miles O’Brien:

The new voting system also includes electronic poll books made by a Saint Louis company called KNOWiNK. Election officials say the devices frequently shut down and showed polling information for the wrong election, creating more havoc.

But they also come with security concerns. They are iPads that connect to the Internet to download the database of registered voters.

How big a concern is that?

Richard DeMillo:

It’s a huge concern. If you can deny someone access to the voting machine, then you move that person away from voting at that place at that time.

Miles O’Brien:

It is a proven target. In the run-up to the 2016 election, Russian hackers successfully broke into voter databases and software systems in 39 different states.

Rick Barron is the director of registration and elections in Fulton County.

Do you have any evidence that, in the midst of this chaotic election, hackers took advantage of those vulnerabilities and may have tampered with this election?

Richard Barron:

I have no evidence of that.

Miles O’Brien:

You really don’t have the bandwidth or the capability of looking?

Richard Barron:

No, I mean, we — we’re — all that we can do is set up our own security around our equipment to mitigate the risks to it. We have cameras on our building. We have alarms on our building. We have — the server is locked away as well.

Miles O’Brien:

The experts all agree, paper ballots marked by hand are the most secure, most verifiable way of voting. More than a million Georgia voters chose to do this at home this election.

For those who didn’t receive their ballots or chose to vote in person, the expensive, complicated, vulnerable machines created a huge bottleneck at polling sites, and there were many fewer of them.

In Fulton County, 34 sites opted out because of COVID-19 concerns. With Democrats turning out 4-1 over Republicans, it was a recipe for scenes like this, long lines of African-American voters.

Corie Campbell waited four hours in South Fulton County.

Corie Campbell:

I feel like they are just trying to discourage people of color or minority to not vote, because that’s the agenda that we are trying to push, especially younger people of color and minority. So — and it’s very important. They know how important it is, so they will do anything to throw a rock in the process.

Miles O’Brien:

With four to five million Georgians expected to vote in November, this primary election offers a stark warning of electoral chaos ahead.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Miles O’Brien in Atlanta.

Banner image credit: PBS NewsHour.

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