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Court shuts down voting machine lawsuit

By Johnny Jackson

jjackson@henryherald.com

At the dawn of one of the nation's most historic general elections, one metro Atlanta group is planning to appeal to have Georgia's touch-screen voting system revamped.

The group of eight metro Atlanta residents - known as the Voters Organized for Trusted Election Results in Georgia Group, or VOTER GA - filed a lawsuit against the state two years ago to have the current touch-screen voting system banned.

On Tuesday, a Fulton County Superior Court dismissed the lawsuit for reasons not yet disclosed. The lawsuit effectively challenged the constitutionality of Georgia's electronic touch-screen voting machines, which have been in place since 2002.

"We're going to consider appealing," said Garland Favorito, the lead plaintiff in the case.

He said the heart of the lawsuit is the potential for voter fraud and lack of a means to redress it. He argues that the state's election results cannot be properly verified or recounted by simply using its touch-screen voting system.

"The biggest concern is that, when the voter goes in and selects candidate A, the machine could select candidate B, and no one in the state would be able to tell," Favorito added. "Fraud and error are undetectable, that is why we are suing. We're just suing for change."

Secretary of State Karen Handel released a statement late Tuesday applauding the court's ruling to dismiss the lawsuit. "No Georgian has been denied the right to vote by our voting systems," it said, "and our systems must pass a rigorous testing and certification process."

Georgia became the first state to implement the uniform, statewide system of voting using touch-screen electronic machines, said Secretary of State Spokesman Matt Carrothers.

The voting machines were made available following an investigation into improving Georgia's existing optical scan system. The investigation was conducted in 2000 by the 21st Century Voting Commission, a multi-partisan advisory panel started by then-Secretary of State Cathy Cox to create a uniform, statewide election system.

Funding for the new system was approved by the General Assembly with an initial cost of $54 million that was provided by the federal Help America Vote Act of 2002.

According to Carrothers, an initiative to replace the state's electronic voting machines would cost between $80 and $100 million.

Favorito said the group's objective is to have the state redesign its electronic voting machines to include voter receipts, or to return to its optical scan system. "I think either alternative is acceptable. It just depends on what the Secretary of State would do," added Favorito, who believes returning to an optical scan system would be less costly to the state in labor and equipment. "It's very expensive to test all those electronic machines and deliver those to every precinct. Optical scan only needs to have one at each precinct, instead of 20."

Henry County Board of Elections and Registration Director Janet Shellnutt said the current voting system is a secure method for accurately counting votes. "I have complete confidence in the touch-screen units," she said. "The machines are working. The only other option for us in the state of Georgia is by the electronic voting units or by paper ballots. To try to vote every body by [optical scan] paper ballot would be a major over-haul. To go to paper ballots, it would be quite a task."

Insofar as equipping the voter machines with receipt printers, Shellnutt said: "That is a tremendous amount of money. I think it would be close to $1 million for Henry County alone, and the older models probably could not be retro-fitted with the paper receipts."

Mark Sawyer, another plaintiff and member of VOTER GA, said the entire lawsuit against the state could have been avoided. "We found out in discovery that if the law had been followed in 2001 when the machines were procured and certified [the lawsuit would never have been filed]," said Sawyer, who noted that the law requires an independent audit trail of each vote that is cast. The current touch-screen machines do not have an independent audit trail.

VOTER GA would like to have equal protection similar to absentee voters who utilize optically-scanned paper ballots. The group claims that in absentee voting, paper ballots are required to verify a voter's selection along with providing true recounts, to investigate voting discrepancies, and to prevent fraud.

According to Shellnutt, each of Henry County's touch-screen voting machines is certified and audited before elections. The board, she said, has CD-ROMs to go with the machines which are used to store information and have yet to present problems with retrieving voter information.

VOTER GA maintains that the state should have statewide external audit trail capability for any and all voting machines, and should perform a public audit of at least one randomly selected race at the precinct on election night. He said Georgia should also allow the visually impaired to continue to vote independently with whatever solution is selected.

"We're suing to get the law changed," said Favorito. He said he expects to file an appeal when he learns why the lawsuit was dismissed. "We have to see the order and then file a response."

Staff writer Jaya Franklin contributed to this article.

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On the net:

VOTER GA: www.voterga.org