Georgia Questioned on E-Voting Problems and Oversight

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With additional reporting by Matthew Cardinale.

(APN) ATLANTA — VoterGA, an elections integrity organization in Georgia, has filed a complaint with the State’s Inspector General’s office regarding what they see as the Secretary of State Office’s failure to investigate E-voting problems.

In two cases VoterGA says investigations have not occurred or been inadequate. In a third, they claim that the State attempted to hold the wrong person–an election worker rather than a supervisor–responsible for the inclusion of test votes in official election results.

Secretary of State Karen Handel left her position at the start of this year in order to run as a Republican candidate for Governor. Currently, Brian Kemp, who was appointed by Governor Perdue, is serving out the remainder of Handel’s term.

BLANK VOTES MAY HAVE SWAYED TAX REFERENDUM

The first case VoterGA is concerned about was an issue raised by David Chastain, a Libertarian candidate for Secretary of State.

Chastain was troubled with the E-voting results in a single-ballot referendum in Cobb County about whether to approve a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST).

“SPLOST 2005 looked like it would be defeated,” Chastain told Atlanta Progressive News. “It won by 114 votes. There were 285 blank votes and those were due to the Diebold voting machines. I sent an email to the voting board and they said well a lot of times people go to the polls but don’t really vote, they just want to show they participated. But here we had only one question on the ballot, do you want to levy a sales tax in Cobb County or not?”

“During a public meeting I made a public comment. I did not go to the meeting where it was announced but I found out Shawn Lagrua [the Inspector General specifically for Handel’s office] and her office started an investigation. I knew nothing of this investigation. They did not tell me. They said I was correct but there was nothing in the investigation to explain why or how it could be prevented. In January I asked what kind of investigation you could have when you don’t even contact the people involved in making the complaint?” Chastain said.

However, Matt Carrothers, spokesman previously for Handel and now for Kemp, says Chastain never filed an official complaint and that’s why he was not contacted.

“This was raised at a 2009 State Election Board meeting [by Chastain]. There was never a complaint lodged or filed at the time of the election that we’re aware of in 2005 under [former SOS] Cathy Cox. There was never really a complaint lodged after the State Election Board meeting either,” Carrothers said.

“An investigation does not have to be prompted by a complaint. This was something Secretary Handel directed her Office of Inspector General to look into after remarks were made. He [Chastain] never himself filed a complaint. This was a proactive measure by the Secretary of State’s Office to look into it,” Carrothers said.

“There was nothing ever to indicate any machine errors, of people’s votes being unrecorded,” Carrothers said. “It [the blank ballots] could have come from people who just did not vote, that is a possibility. I can’t speculate on that.”

The case, 2009-000018, was closed at the October 2009 SEB Meeting with a 5-0 vote.

The case was investigated by Melissa Marlowe, according to a copy of the report dated September 10, 2009, obtained by APN.

“The reporting Investigator made contact with Beth Kish, Cobb County Manager of Elections and Registration, regarding the complaint,” Marlowe wrote. “Ms. Kish stated the result of the September 23, 2005, SPLOST referendum revealed there had been 285 blank ballots cast. Ms. Kish stated the voters of these ballots did not select any of the choices on the ballot before they cast their ballot. Ms. Kish stated the ballots were not missing, but that the voter did not make a selection.”

“Beth can’t prove that. The votes could’ve been lost and almost assuredly were lost,” Garland Favorito of VoterGA said.

“Ms. Kish stated there were no discrepancies associated with the election or counting of ballots. Ms. Kish stated the number of voters matched the number of ballots cast,” Marlowe wrote.

“Ms. Kish also stated the office no longer had the election returns because they were only required to keep them for two years,” Marlowe wrote.

“There is no evidence to support any violation of the State Election Code. It is recommended this case be closed,” Marlowe wrote.

“But who would come into the poll and not vote on one issue, when they already knew it was a hotly contested issue?” Favorito said. “The reason there was nothing to indicate that [machine error] is because the voting report process cannot be audited, so there is no way to determine whether or not those people really cast votes. And it is obvious to me that they did cast votes and the equipment lost them.”

“But the bigger question is why would the voting machine vendor make a voting machine that allows a blank vote to be cast when there’s only one item on the ballot?” Favorito added.

Meanwhile, having never been contacted, Chastain began doing some investigating of his own.

“I went through files of fifty single-issue referendums. I looked at the original and found around average across the State one percent of votes are not counted [that the ballots are blank] and in some counties the uncounted ballots [blank ballots] were almost three percent. I used a simple equation. We assume everyone who means to vote, votes,” Chastain said.

Chastian said he asked a technician if there were problems with the auditless E-voting machines in Georgia, and that he was told the machines are subject to factors like humidity which will affect the way they work. Carrothers said he was unaware of any problem with humidity.

Cobb County’s elections office did not respond to a request for comment by APN.

MACHINE CERTIFICATION COMPLAINT “LOST”

In the second case, Favorito filed a complaint with Lagrua’s office but later said he was told it was lost.

“In my case Lagrua said they could not locate my complaint after the office, Chris Brown deputy inspector general, confirmed multiple times that they had it. The case had to do with the acquisition and certification and testing of the voting machines, and its legitimacy,” Favorito said.

Carrothers said he was not aware of Favorito’s complaint having been lost.

“They’ve requested this complaint from Mr. Favorito and he will not provide it. I do know the office has requested of Mr. Favorito that he submit his complaint again. They’re waiting for him to send his complaint,” Carrothers said.

TEST VOTES INCLUDED IN CERTIFIED ELECTION RESULTS

In a third case, Lagrua’s office investigated a situation in Lowndes County where 947 test votes were accidentally included in the certified election totals; however, advocates say Lagrua improperly went after the election worker, Laura Gallegos, instead of the supervisor involved, Deb Cox.

The State caught the error when the number of voters who signed in was fewer than the number of votes recorded. “Rather than just take a slap on the wrist, Deb Cox decided to blame the voting technician. All that was done while Laura Gallegos was not even on the premises. However, [Cox, Lagrua] and the Deputy Attorney General attempted to blame her for the certification error,” Favorito said.

“They accused her and filed a statement of matters asserted against her. They charged her in an administrative hearing, but the supervisor [Deb Cox] had failed to administer the proper oath to Laura Gallegos, and the judge dismissed the case,” Favorito said.

“They protected the person who was really involved in my opinion,” Favorito said. “Laura Gallegos filed a counter-complaint. Only then they went after her [Cox] for the failure to reconcile,” the vote and voter totals.

Meanwhile, Gallegos lost her job and her home in foreclosure in the process, and she is considering filing a lawsuit against the county board for wrongful termination, Favorito said.

Carrothers said he was not aware whether there had been an investigation into Gallegos or Cox, but said that the State entered a consent order with Lowndes County to help ensure the mistake does not re-occur. APN obtained a copy of the consent order from Favorito.

Gallegos did not return a call from APN seeking comment. Lowndes County also did not respond to a request from APN for comment.

STILL NO VOTER VERIFIED PAPER TRAIL

Handel had campaigned for Secretary of State in 2006 on a platform of elections integrity and had said she supported a voter verified paper audit trail (VVPAT). In light of that campaign pledge, APN asked Carrothers why has the SOS office–under Handel until her recent resignation, and now under Mr. Kemp–decided not to obtain and implement the necessary equipment to have the VVPAT?

Carrothers said Georgia had a three county VVPAT pilot project in 2006. He added the E-voting machines have an internal memory that can reproduce the ballots if necessary; however, Favorito said that is not the same as having an audit trail that the voter can verify. In other words, there is no way to know that what the memory would reproduce actually matches the voters’ original selections.

“Secretary Kemp has indicated that he’s certainly open to considering all options when the State does purchase future election systems,” Carrothers said.

“Currently, however, today, requiring county and local governments to implement new voting systems in this Fiscal Year, for example, when every local and state government and every agency is making budget cuts, would be too much of a burden at the local level,” Carrothers said.

However, Favorito said that Handel failed to take action before the economic crisis while she was in office in 2006, 2007, and 2008.

“It doesn’t take into consideration the amount of money optical scan would save the State and the counties. We estimated about a five million dollars per year savings because you don’t have to have 20 voting machines in every precinct. You just have to have one or two optical scanners,” Favorito said.

“The other thing is when former Secretary of State Cathy Cox wanted 54 million dollars to disenfranchise everybody, money was no object. Now when we want to re-enfranchise everybody, they’re worried about the cost.”

(END/2010)

About the author:

Alice Gordon is a Staff Writer for The Atlanta Progressive News and is reachable at alice@atlantaprogressivenews.com. Matthew Cardinale is the News Editor for The Atlanta Progressive News and is reachable at matthew@atlantaprogressivenews.com.

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Our syndication policy was updated June 2007. For more information on how to syndicate Atlanta Progressive News content, please visit: http://www.atlantaprogressivenews.com/extras/syndicate.html

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