Q&A with Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger

Countdown to the Primary
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger
Security First: Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger credit: jenniferstalcup.com

Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a former state representative and business owner from Johns Creek, faced a daunting task soon after he took office in January of 2019: Implementing a new statewide voting system mandated by the General Assembly during that year’s legislative session. The new system replaces the 17-year-old touchscreen voting machines; it retains electronic voting but adds a paper ballot.

His task has been made more difficult by lingering concerns over issues of integrity and security in Georgia’s 2018 elections, which prompted several lawsuits.

Last summer a federal judge called Georgia’s 27,000 aging machines, installed in 2002, “unsecure, unreliable and grossly outdated” and ordered their replacement in time for this year’s elections. Dominion Voting Systems was awarded the nearly $107-million contract to supply the machines.

The first statewide test of the new machines is coming up March 24, when voters will make their Presidential Preference Primary selections.

Last year’s HB 316 also provided for changes to voting registration, early voting and absentee ballots. The secretary of state’s office has announced it will be working with Dr. Alexander Schwarzmann, dean of Augusta University’s School of Computer and Cyber Sciences and an expert in election security, to ensure that the election process goes smoothly.

Georgia’s Trend’s Susan Percy recently talked to Raffensberger in a warehouse far from the Capitol, where the machines were being readied for distribution. Following are edited highlights of the interview.

GT: Are you confident that everything will be ready for primary voting?

Raffensperger: Absolutely.

GT: Give us an idea of what’s involved in replacing the old machines.

Raffensperger: It’s a statewide implementation for an entirely new voting system for Georgia. The last time this was done was in 2002, so this time the schedule is a little more compressed. The other time it was implemented for a May primary. Now we have to have it ready for the presidential primary. Also, the population has grown an awful lot in Georgia since 2002.

Be that as it may, it’ll be a statewide implementation of a new voting database and then the new ballot marking system and new electronic poll pads.

GT: You did testing on the machines in local elections in six counties last fall.
How did that go?

Raffensperger: Very successfully. The biggest take-away: Training is so critical.

GT: You have to train both election officials and the public, right?

Raffensperger: People have 17 years of muscle memory with the existing machines. Now you have to build that muscle memory – what do I do if this situation happens? That’s why you train. Part of the Dominion bid included $14 million for the training aspect – almost triple what the next company’s training budget was. We understand how important it is; Dominion understands how important it is; and county election officials understand how important it is. We are all singing off the same song sheet.

GT: Are you pleased with Dominion?

Raffensperger: They have been a great partner – very proactive, very positive.

GT: What’s the experience with the new voting machines going to be like for the individual voters? Will it be a lot different from what they are used to?

Raffensperger: It is similar but different.

GT: Can you describe the process?

Raffensperger: When you get your vote card, you go to the ballot-marking device, put your card in there and up will pop the screen and then you’ll see your selection. Then pick your selection on a touchscreen just like now. The screen is about 17 inches. After you make all your selections, press that button.

GT: That sounds familiar so far.

Raffensperger: Here’s where it gets a little different. When you press the button, it will now be to print that ballot not to cast the ballot. Then, nine seconds later, out of the HP402 [printer], the ballot will come up. That’s when you can hold your ballot, take a look at it, verify that you’ve made all those right choices. Once you’ve verified that, you take your ballot over to the ballot scanner, put it on the top of that, press that button – that’s the button that will cast your ballot.

As your ballot goes through there, it’s immediately counted. We also take a digital image of it, so we basically have a PDF version, basically electronically scanned for all time. The ballot drops into the ballot box.

GT: What’s different about the new machines’ capabilities?

Raffensperger: Two huge improvements to the system. Now, for the first time, we will be able to do physical recounts for close elections that we have. Whenever we have elections within a half percent, the apparent second candidate can say, “I would like a recount,” and we can go ahead and do a physical recount. We pull out those ballots, lay them out on the table. We [will] use paper ballots for a physical recount.

Another key aspect is for the first time we will be able to do a physical audit of the election with those ballots. We pull up a random sample size, pull up paper ballots, look at all the vote totals for each candidate. At the end of day, what we want to see is conformance and confluence with election results reported on Election Day.

GT: Why is that audit significant?

Raffensperger: People have that confidence that “my vote was counted,” that it was accurately counted. I think that restores any lack of confidence there could be in the system. I think that’s really positive.

GT: Will this slow the reporting of the election results?

Raffensperger: [With] high-speed counters at the county level, it will be much faster from the standpoint of counting absentee and early votes. Election night information will come at the same time [as before] – or quicker. We want to make sure the results are accurately reported, that everything is appropriately done, that we have tied up all the loose ends, followed the protocol. From the standpoint of the audit, no election will be certified until after the audit process.

GT: I believe the new system has special accommodations for voters with disabilities.

Raffensperger: That was really important. That’s one of the advantages of a hand-marking device over hand-marked paper ballots.

GT: What kind of response have you had from county election officials to the new machines and new system?

Raffensperger: They understood why the system needed to be updated. It’s been a long time coming. They were excited, grateful for all the support they were

GT: Security has been a big issue surrounding voting in the state. Tell us how your office is addressing that.

Raffensperger: Security is job one for elections, from the beginning through the end of the process. We’ve already hosted several cybersecurity roundtables. We are partnering with Augusta University and the Georgia Cyber Center and are very excited about that. Dr. Schwarzmann [dean of the School of Computer and Cyber Sciences] is world renowned for his research work on cybersecurity related to elections. We’re very excited that we have that resource right here in Georgia.

In the audit process, [nonprofits] Voting Works and the Center for Election Innovation and Research partnered with us to develop audit strategies and procedures.

GT: I want to ask about the voting list purges.

Raffensperger: We don’t use that term. We talk about list maintenance.

GT: Some estimates say nearly 300,000 names could be removed from the rolls.

Raffensperger: List maintenance is actually required by federal and state law. Many people don’t realize that over 10% of Americans are moving each year. It can be within the state or can be out of state. If you don’t update your voter rolls, you end up with a list that’s just inaccurate.

GT: Critics have expressed concerns about the fairness of the process. How does it work?

Raffensperger: That’s why we joined ERIC – the Electronic Registration Information Center – that was authorized in HB 316, which is going to help us make sure our lists are more accurate, because it will pick up all those cross-state transferees. If you ever left Georgia and moved to another state, you would go register in a new state but you don’t ever tell Georgia; most people never do that. You just get a new driver’s license and registration when you get to a new state. But to have that information will be very valuable – more and more states are joining [ERIC]. Maintaining voter rolls to be accurate is very important. People do pass away, people move out of the state.

[Editor’s note: Late in 2019 a federal judge denied an effort to restore some 98,000 Georgians who have not voted for more than eight years to the voting rolls. But the judge said plaintiffs could ask the Georgia Supreme Court to interpret the state law regarding inactive voters.]

GT: What about protections for those who simply have not voted. How does that work?

Raffensperger: First of all we have several cycles of elections [we consider]. Right now, the cutoff we did on the list maintenance we did this fall was 2012. We look at that period of time, if they haven’t voted prior to early 2012 and back further.

We crowdsourced the information. We had 300,000 names on that list and we sent that out there, and we wanted organizations to take a look at that, and we wanted voters to take a look at it. We got some information that way. We’ll send out written notices to make sure. We want to be very proactive, want to make sure our list is accurate and be in compliance with federal statutes.

GT: The ACLU has expressed concerns that this latest round of list updating might adversely affect low-income people or people of color. How do you respond?

Raffensperger: I look at Georgia’s law, which is already a bit more lenient than Ohio’s – Ohio’s law as written was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court – through HB 316 we added another election notice. We send two written notices, so we have already gone beyond what the Supreme Court has already validated in one of their rulings.

GT: Do you feel personally comfortable with the procedure you are using?

Raffensperger: Absolutely.

GT: Do you worry about any perception of voter suppression in Georgia, particularly from those outside the state?
The topic figured in the Atlanta Democratic candidate debate last fall.

Raffensperger: I think that many people who don’t live in the Southeast still hang on to some stereotypes. Look at where Georgia is now, how it’s grown in population. Look at our research universities. There are so many good things going on. Georgia turned a new leaf – business leaders and political leaders turned a leaf in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and continue to build on that. It’s really a story of success and achievement.

GT: There were charges of voter suppression in the 2018 election. That was before you took office, but the fact that the allegation is out there — does it affect the way you do your job?

Raffensperger: Georgia leads in automatic voter registration. We have three weeks of early voting. Look at the huge turnouts we are having. Voters are engaged in the process. At the end of the day, when I look at the numbers – and I’m an engineer, so I look at numbers – Georgia is doing a great job. Wherever we can further improve the process, we will certainly look at it.

GT: From your perspective, how does Georgia stack up nationally in voter access?

Raffensperger: Georgia leads in so many different aspects – for election security, election integrity. We are leading with a verifiable paper ballot trail [that] allows for 100% recounts on any close election. The physical recount and audit of elections furthers how Georgia is moving forward.

We are a national leader in automated, automatic voter registration. When you move to Georgia, at the point where you’re going to get a driver’s license and are over 17 and a half – you’ll be 18 for the next election – you can register to vote and you automatically are registered unless you say, “Don’t register me.” So it’s opt-out, not opt-in.

GT: Do you have plans to evaluate the new system after this month’s primary?

Raffensberger: Just like we did with the pilot program, we’ll be looking at reports and develop a whole list of what [was] good and what we need to work on. The bigger ballot obviously will be the May ballot. We’ll have all the primaries for
all state constitutional officers, statewide senators, representatives, county commissioners.

GT: All leading up to…

Raffensperger: The fall elections in 2020.

GT: You had to get off to a pretty quick start once you took office. Are your enjoying what you are doing?

Raffensperger: I’m having a great time. We have a strong team, all focused on the successful implementation of our new voting system. We are working very hard and having a good time doing it.

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