In the past decade, Election Systems & Software (E.S. & S.), the largest manufacturer of voting machines in the country, has routinely wined and dined a select group of state-election brass, which the company called an “advisory board,” offering them airfare on trips to places like Las Vegas and New York, upscale-hotel accommodations, and tickets to live events. Among the recipients of this largesse, according to an investigation by McClatchy published last year, was David Dove, the chief of staff to Georgia’s then secretary of state, Brian Kemp. Kemp, the new governor of Georgia, made news in the midterm elections for his efforts to keep people of color from voting and for overseeing his own election. In March of 2017, when Dove attended an E.S. & S. junket in Las Vegas, Kemp’s office was in the market to replace the state’s entire inventory of voting machines. “It’s highly inappropriate for any election official to be accepting anything of value from a primary contractor,” Virginia Canter, the chief ethics officer at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, told McClatchy. “It shocks the conscience.” (Kathy Rogers, E.S. & S.’s senior vice-president for governmental affairs, told McClatchy that there was nothing untoward about the advisory board, which she said has been “immensely valuable in providing customer feedback.”)
Last week, Georgia’s Secure, Accessible & Fair Elections Commission voted to recommend that the state replace its touch-screen voting machines with newer, similarly vulnerable machines, which will be produced by E.S. & S. at an estimated cost of a hundred million dollars. In doing so, the panel rejected the advice of computer scientists and election-integrity advocates, who consider hand-marked ballots to be the “most reliable record of voter intent,” and also the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, which recommended that all states adopt paper ballots and conduct post-election audits. The practice of democracy begins with casting votes; its integrity depends on the inclusivity of the franchise and the accurate recording of its will. Georgia turns out to be a prime example of how voting-system venders, in partnership with elected officials, can jeopardize the democratic process by influencing municipalities to buy proprietary, inscrutable voting devices that are infinitely less secure than paper-ballot systems that cost three times less.
The influence-peddling that has beset Georgia’s voting-system procurement began years earlier, in 2002, when the legislature eliminated a requirement that the state’s voting machines produce an independent audit trail of each vote cast. That same year, the secretary of state, Cathy Cox, signed a fifty-four-million-dollar contract with the election-machine vender Diebold. The lobbyist for Diebold, the former Georgia secretary of state Lewis Massey, then joined the lobbying firm of Bruce Bowers. The revolving door between the Georgia state government and the election venders was just beginning to spin.
Much of the resistance to these proposals is coming from the state level. In early January, the incoming president of the National Association of Secretaries of State (nass), the Republican Paul Pate, of Iowa, told Politico that H.R. 1 was “a huge federal overreach.” The current nass president, the Vermont secretary of state Jim Condos, made it clear to me that, though he personally believes voter-marked paper ballots and post-election audits should be standard practice, he was not able to say this in his official capacity as nass president. “We try to keep partisan politics out of the way,” he said. nass holds its meetings twice a year, and Condos told me that “there is no question that the venders are there and they’re showing their latest and greatest.” In fact, E.S. & S., Hart InterCivic, and Dominion, which together make and service virtually all of the election machines used in the United States, are financial contributors to nass. All are privately held companies and thus largely shielded from financial disclosure. In addition, since 2013, E.S. & S. has donated more than thirty thousand dollars to the Republican State Leadership Committee, a group that, in her book “Dark Money,” the New Yorker writer Jane Mayer calls “a catch-all bank account for corporations interested in influencing state laws.” Last year, Trump successfully nominated Donald Palmer, who, as a former state-election director in Florida and Virginia, was a member of the E.S. & S. advisory board, to be a commissioner at the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, the federal organization that oversees certification of election equipment.
Paper ballots, it should be noted, are not a perfect solution, as New York City voters found out in November, when their two-page ballots jammed the scanners, leading to long lines and wait times. But they are inexpensive, accountable, and intuitive. Except, it seems, for members of Georgia’s Secure, Accessible & Fair Elections Commission. “When I was in Georgia and I met with legislators and election officials and talked to them about using a ballot where you fill in the ovals and then mark it with a pen, or use a ballot-marking device for somebody that is disabled, they didn’t know that that was an option,” Susan Greenhalgh, who is now the policy director of the National Election Defense Coalition, told me. “People literally said to me, ‘Does anybody else in the country do this?’ ”