Georgia’s election certification avoided an even worse nightmare that’s just waiting to happen next time | Andrew Appel/Freedom to Tinker
Voters in Georgia polling places, 2020, used Ballot-Marking Devices (BMDs), touchscreen computers that print out paper ballots; then voters fed those ballots into Precinct-Count Optical Scan (PCOS) voting machines for tabulation. There were many allegations about hacking of Georgia’s Presidential election. Based on the statewide audit, we can know that the PCOS machines were not cheating (in any way that changed the outcome). But can we know that the touchscreen BMDs were not cheating? And what about next time? There’s a nightmare scenario waiting to happen if Georgia (or other states) continue to use touchscreen BMDs on a large scale. There were many allegations about hacking of Georgia’s voting-machine computers in the November 2020 election—accusations about who owned the company that made the voting machines, accusations about who might have hacked into the computers. An important principle of election integrity is “software independence,” which I’ll paraphrase as saying that we should be able to verify the outcome of the election without having to know who wrote the software in the voting machines.
Indeed, the State of Georgia did a manual audit of all the paper ballots in the November 2020 Presidential election. The audit agreed with the outcome claimed by the optical-scan voting machines. This means,
- The software in Georgia’s PCOS scanners is now irrelevant to the outcome of the 2020 Presidential election in Georgia, which has been confirmed by the audit.
- Georgia’s PCOS scanners were not cheating in the 2020 Presidential election (certainly not by enough to change the outcome), which we know because the hand-count audits closely agreed with the PCOS counts.
- The audit gave election officials the opportunity to notice that several batches of ballots hadn’t even been counted the first time; properly counting those ballots changed the vote totals but not the outcome. I’ll discuss that in a future post.
Suppose the polling-place optical scanners had been hacked (enough to change the outcome). Then this would have been detected in the audit, and (in principle) Georgia would have been able to recover by doing a full recount.† That’s what we mean when we say optical-scan voting machines have “strong software independence”—you can obtain a trustworthy result even if you’re not sure about the software in the machine on election day.