Karen Handel: Voting Rites

Georgia’s Secretary of State says providing a paper trail for electronic voting is a matter of when, not if. But the transition needs to be a practical one, and getting it right could cost the state as much as $100 million.

Karen Handel, Georgia’s first Republican Secretary of State in 130 years, took office in January. Early in her career she was a top aide to former Vice President Dan Quayle and his wife Marilyn. She has worked in the corporate world and served as deputy chief of staff for Gov. Sonny Perdue. She was elected Fulton County Commission Chair in 2003 and served until 2006. Last November’s election was her first statewide race.

Early in March, Georgia Trend Editor Susan Percy talked to Handel in her office in the State Capitol. Here are excerpts from that interview.

GT: You’ve had a varied career. How does that affect your approach to running the Secretary of State’s office?

KH: Certainly having experience in government, politics and the business world has been a tremendous asset because of the combination of those perspectives. Working in the Bush-Quayle Administration for Dan and Marilyn so early in my career, I was exposed to that interplay between government and politics and [could see] really how difficult it is to get things done in that environment.

Then to go into the corporate world and get that perspective: You’re pretty much just told to get something done – and you’re expected to get it done. I look at all issues through that corporate filter of how to get things done – and then manage the politics of the solution after the fact, so that I’m always in the approach of “these are the issues, here are the options.” Make that decision based on what is the best right thing to do, then manage your politics after that, so that you are always managing after you’ve made your decision, not basing your decision on the politics of the day.

GT: There are some key differences between government and the corporate world, aren’t there?

KH: In the corporate world, the culture is far more flexible, more open-minded, and there is much less patience for unwieldy rules and policies and people who don’t have the let’s-get-the-job-done mindset. A lot of folks talk about [how] we need to make government like a business.

Certainly we need to take cues and bring in philosophies from the business world, but government is not a for-profit, so there are some things that don’t match up. With that said, I never want to hear “Well, that’s government – it is what it is.” It drives me crazy.

GT: What was the appeal of a statewide office? Was it difficult to go from a county government to a state agency?

KH: Well, from a budget standpoint the secretary of state’s office is far smaller. You take all the different budget funds at Fulton County – it’s nearly a billion dollars. The budget here is $36 million. The difference is that in this role there’s a much greater ability for me to set the vision and make things happen and get things done. That wasn’t the structure of the governmental body in Fulton County, even though I was chairman. Most people assume that as chairman you have some ability to just make it so. Nothing could be made so without four votes in Fulton County.

GT: Would you talk about electronic voting – what’s working and what needs to be changed?

KH: Citizens seem to very much like the current machines from a user-friendly standpoint. Do we need to move to the Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail or VVPAT – that’s a question of when, not if, in my mind. But it needs to be a practical transition. Currently, there’s just simply not a good machine on the market that does the things that we would need it to do from a VVPAT standpoint – as well as the audit and recount standpoint. I do think that we will move in that direction.

GT: When?

KH: The timeline for that I’m not so sure about, because it’s an expensive proposition. It’s an $80- to $100-million initiative, if we were to completely move from the current machines to some new type of machine, because our machines cannot be easily retrofitted with a printer unit. We would need to get the manufacturer to do an R&D [research and development] initiative to develop something unique for us. That’s not the best way to go, generally.

With that said, in the interim what I’ve asked in the budget – and I feel reasonably confident that the legislature will sign off on it – is money so we can have an independent audit of our machines. This audit would look at the hardware, software and all of our security, audit and recount procedures so we can have a gap plan, if you will, or a transition plan while we determine frankly, as a nation, what is going to be the next iteration of voting equipment.

GT: How do you feel about the machines?

KH: I remain open-minded around whether or not there’s anything inherently wrong with the machines. In Georgia we have simply not had any problem with the machines. The issues that have occurred have been human error type issues – things like a poll worker tripping over the cord – all people issues.

That brings me to what I think is the far more serious issue within our election process – and that is poll workers. The average age of a poll worker in the United States is 72. We need to really revamp how we are recruiting and training our poll workers. We need to look at partnerships with colleges, partnerships with the business community. A couple of states have put in a process similar to jury duty for poll workers. This is not such an issue this year, as an off year.

Next year for the presidential cycle we are going to need tens of thousands of good poll workers. Even if we could have a really technologically savvy individual – one – in each precinct, that would help a great deal. That’s very heavy on my mind.

GT: Any other voting machine concerns?

KH: The other thing that we need is to understand where our citizens truly are about these machines. We did a pilot project of VVPAT machines in three precincts last November. There was exit polling done, if you will, about voter confidence. The number was 84 or 86 percent that said they were confident that their vote had been counted on the electronic machine without VVPAT. That number went to 89 percent with VVPAT. Again, this is anecdotal – but that’s not a huge jump for a price tag of $80- to $100-million. So we really need to drill down with our citizens.

We need to broadly – from a nationwide standpoint – have a better understanding of where the citizens are on this issue because confidence in an election is twofold. It is how citizens perceive it and the raw facts of how it was conducted.

GT: What about voting lists?

KH: In Georgia we have a statewide information list. The information flows up and down, from the counties up and from the state down. It’s not an effective data management system. We will embark on a major upgrade to that list.

GT: How does the system work now?

KH: Currently the data management component is done by the counties. Some of our counties’ elections are run by probate judges. They don’t really have a full staff. So management of the database becomes a very difficult situation, but the secretary of state’s office is [prohibited] statutorily from actually touching the data – or managing the data. So we will need a little bit of a legislative change there, so there can be a greater partnership between the counties and state.

That list is the foundation of our elections. We must have the most accurate list of who is eligible to vote, because everything else flows from that list. We’ve got to get that part right. Minnesota has a very, very good model that we’re looking at closely.

GT: So other states are wrestling with some of the same problems?

KH: Every state is dealing with registration issues and electronic voting issues. There’s federal legislation pending that would require a certain type of VVPAT machine be in place for the November ’08 election. There’s no machine on the market that does what that bill would tell us to do.

GT: It sounds unlikely that everything will be resolved by next year.

KH: If money rained down on me at this moment and I had all that I needed and more, and if I could just throw out the window procurement laws, I still could not purchase, test, certify, train poll workers, train county election officials, train the citizens of Georgia with new machines by November ’08. It’s physically impossible.

GT: So it’s not just a matter of finding the money?

KH: The very last thing that we want to do coming into a presidential cycle is create chaos and uncertainty around the process and the current machines and the other issues. Which is why – back to that audit – it’s important that take place this year, so that we have some real data results, not emotional feelings around the issue, but real facts, to be able to come out to the people of Georgia and say this is where we are with the machines, these are the gaps we’ve identified, this is what we’re going to have in place for the next election cycle.

GT: Is there still some bad feeling left over from the 2000 elections?

KH: Yes. I think we’re in a time that particularly presidential elections are going to remain pretty close. We are philosophically divided almost on a 50-50 basis in the county. That naturally means that we’re going to have very, very close presidential elections. It’s important to let the light shine in. If and when we need to do a recount, it needs to be a very transparent, open, unbiased, non-partisan or bipartisan approach – and procedure. And that’s one of the things I think with the recount in Florida was a challenge. There was too much sort of closed door [activity]. You send a much greater message of confidence to people if you are open about things.

GT: Would you talk a bit about Georgia’s Voter ID Law, now being challenged in court?

KH: I support photo ID. I do believe that with that change there is an extraordinarily high responsibility on my part and on the agency’s part to have the most robust outreach program possible. And to have an appropriate transition period. I don’t think it would be practical to say if there was some [court] decision this summer that we would have photo ID this November.

We need to have time to be able to show everyone that we did our part from an outreach standpoint, if we move forward with photo ID – and I really think it’s a question of when, not if. We need to have special teams set up, caseworkers to triage some of the unique situations that are going to be out there – someone who just has no idea where their birth certificate is. We have to be proactive, aggressively proactive, in how we do that whole outreach and education and getting IDs in the hands of citizens. And I think that was one of maybe the missing pieces previously, when all of this was coming through.

GT: What about absentee ballots? You’ve indicated some concerns.

KH: Already there is a piece of legislation coming through the General Assembly this year to increase the penalties for absentee ballot fraud. When we looked at the law we found just a real inconsistency there. Absentee ballot fraud was still a misdemeanor while other fraud was a felony. So the penalties for absentee ballot fraud are going to be strengthened. The vast majority of the fraud cases that are currently being investigated by our chief investigative officer involve absentee frauds.

We are moving to a time where 25 percent of our vote is coming from absentee ballots, so we have to get serious about that component of voting. To do that on the investigative side, we have brought in a chief investigative officer, and she very much functions like an inspector general so that the investigations are kept separate from me.

As chairman of State Elections Board – and with the state elections board, we are the judge and jury; so we ought not to also be the investigators. If I’m going to be aggressive around fraud, I want every single case to be investigated thoroughly without any bias, with every “i” dotted and “t” crossed. When the case is presented to the state elections board we are going to make decisions based on facts – not emotions and not politics.

GT: The special election for the 10th Congressional District is set for June 19. Governor Perdue took some heat for not holding the election earlier.

KH: The whole strategy was an attempt to have the election be on June 19 because that was already an established election day, and many of the counties in the Tenth were already having elections on that day. We already know several members of the legislature are going to run. Those seats must have a special election no sooner than 30 days, no later than 60 days after the vacancy.

So really if the timing was not carefully laid out, these counties could have been facing three elections between now and June 19. That’s tens of thousands of additional tax dollars that were never budgeted by these counties.

GT: How do you go about actually getting more people to vote in elections?

KH: Voter turnout is so disturbingly low, not just in Georgia but across the country. In looking at research done around this issue, states have tried any number of things: longer hours for voting, Saturday voting, vote centers – instead of small precincts [they] set up vote centers so it doesn’t matter where you live, you can go there on your way to work. Of all these different ideas, not a single one has moved the needle on voter turnout.

Voter turnout is really driven by who or what is on the ballot and, much like many things in life, whether or not it is a habit of that particular individual. So that means we have to reach out to young people. When kids turn 16, getting their driver’s license is the most exciting thing that has ever happened to them. When they turn 18, we have to make getting the voter registration card … it’s never going to be as exciting as your driver’s license, but we need to move it up a couple notches.

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