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Georgia runoffs are impossible to properly audit, experts say

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 14: Voters cast their ballot on the first day of early voting at the High Museum polling station on December 14, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 14: Voters cast their ballot on the first day of early voting at the High Museum polling station on December 14, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)
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WASHINGTON (SBG) - Election security experts are warning that the Georgia runoff elections will be impossible to properly audit.

Georgia residents will cast their votes on touchscreens, also known as ballot-marking devices, produced by Dominion Voting Systems. Since the voters don’t record their selections by hand, there’s no paper trail to verify whether the machines recorded the votes correctly— i.e., that the machine didn't contain malware or was otherwise misconfigured.

Georgia’s machines print a paper record after someone votes. But that record only shows how the machine recorded the vote, and not necessarily how the person intended to vote, explained Marilyn Marks, vice president and executive director of the Coalition for Good Governance.

In addition, that piece of paper only contains a barcode and a list of names. It is possible for the machine to record a different vote in the barcode than what’s on the list, or a different vote from what the voter intended, she said.

Marks says only mail-in ballots will leave an auditable paper trail, since they are hand-marked.

“Those are the only ones where we can know what the voter's choice really was,” she said. “Otherwise, what we know is what the computer put on paper, which may not at all be what the voter intended to be put on paper.”

So far, no evidence has been presented that any ballots cast have altered the voter's intent.

Cybersecurity experts have been warning about election machine hackability for years, including in a recent documentary, “Kill Chain: the Cyber War on America’s Elections.”

Even machines that tabulate hand-marked paper ballots can be hacked. But in that case, hackability isn’t a problem because the results can be audited, noted Philip Stark, associate dean of mathematical and physical sciences at the University of California, Berkeley.

Stark invented the “risk-limiting audit,” a statistical test that allows election officials to verify election results by checking random samples of ballots, instead of recounting the entire vote.

For a risk-limiting audit to work, officials need to follow the right physical procedures, Stark said. That would include using hand-marked paper ballots. It also includes other procedures, like maintaining proper ballot custody, checking voter eligibility, ensuring there aren’t more ballots than registered voters, and verifying signatures.

“If they do those things, then a risk-limiting audit could really give them strong evidence about who actually won,” Stark said.

When verifying results, election officials ultimately need to focus on evidence rather than procedures, he said. Just because they followed certain rules or used certified equipment doesn’t necessarily mean the results are trustworthy.

“That’s like a brain surgeon saying, ‘I followed procedures and used a sterile scalpel, therefore the patient is fine,’” instead of actually examining the patient following the procedure, Stark said.

Dominion Voting Systems CEO John Poulos testified before the Michigan Senate Oversight Committee on Tuesday to address voter fraud allegations against his company from President Donald Trump. He called the allegations a "dangerous and reckless disinformation campaign."

He said his company provides thousands of pages of guidelines for evaluating its software.

The Senate committee asked Poulos whether it would be possible to commit election fraud through his company's voting machines.

"The most important thing to understand about Dominion is this – we do not run elections," Poulos said. "Our role is limited to providing local election offices with the machines they need to run elections.”

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Early voting for the Georgia runoffs began on Dec. 14. Election day is Jan. 5.

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