State Elections Board_hearing

Members of the State Elections Board, including Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (second from right), listen during a hearing to determine if the Athens-Clarke County Board of Elections violated Georgia elections law. (Photo/Gabriela Miranda)

After a seven hour hearing, the State Elections Board voted unanimously for the Athens-Clarke County Board of Elections to cease and desist the use of all paper ballots and to pay the state $5,000 per day until it begins using the state’s required voting machines.

Charlotte Sosebee, director of elections and voter registration for ACC, said she could have the new voting machines ready for use by March 12.

In a 4-1 vote, the state board also said the ACC Board of Elections must pay $2,500 in legal fees to the Secretary of State’s Office.

The hearing, which began with about 120 attendees, comes after the ACC Board of Elections voted 3-2 to use paper ballots in the primary at a meeting on March 3.

During the hearing, the ACC Board of Elections justified its decision to use paper ballots in the March election because it determined that the use of the new voting machines was “impracticable” in protecting voter privacy and accommodating the required number of machines in smaller voting centers.

Georgia law states there must be one voting machine for every 250 people voting. Bryan Sells, a civil rights lawyer representing ACC, said voting centers in Athens are not equipped or large enough to accommodate the required number of devices.

The ACC Board of Elections opted to use paper ballots after deeming that the large screens and design of the state’s new Dominion voting machines made it difficult to ensure voter secrecy, Sells said.

Georgia law says paper ballots may be used when the usage of electronic voting machines are deemed “impossible or impracticable to use” — the ACC Board of Elections stood on the determination that the machines were not practical, Sells said.

However, Sells opened the hearing by stating that the ACC Board of Elections was willing to work with the state board to meet on a solution that would best protect ballot secrecy and voting devices.

Ryan Germany, general council for the Secretary of State’s Office, said by Georgia law, the ACC Board of Elections can only issue paper ballots in case of emergencies, otherwise the local board — like all elections bodies throughout the state — must utilize the new Dominion voting machines. The state also said “practicable” is not to say “only if he or she feels like complying” but is mandatory.

To counter Sells’ statement that ACC voting centers could not house the required number of machines, Germany said the ACC Board of Elections received forms of layout scenarios to fit the machines and guidance from Chris Harvey, director of the elections division for the Secretary of State’s Office and Sosebee.

The use of the paper ballots in Athens started on March 4 for early voting, which opened on March 2.

Germany countered Sells’ justification for ACC using paper ballots by citing state election law, which states that beginning with the 2020 presidential primary, all federal, state and county elections voting in polls shall be conducted with the same ballot marking devices.

“However, the backup plan doesn’t swallow the Georgia law, I know there are very passionate people about paper ballots, but that’s not the way the people in [the State Elections Board] and in the [General Assembly] have enacted this law,” Germany said in his opening statement.

Witness statements

The first witness questioned was Harvey, who stated that the screen of the previous ballot marking devices, called direct recording electronic systems, was smaller and adjustable. Sells said the design of these machines didn’t pose a threat to voter privacy.

The Dominion voting machines use larger tablets, have a brighter screen and stand upright — however, Harvey said voter secrecy can still be ensured by turning the machines around to face each other or side-by-side.

In her testimony, Lisa McGlaun, ACC elections assistant, said she originally saw electrical challenges with the new voting machines because the centers weren't equipped with enough outlets and circuits. McGlaun said the electrical issue was taken care of.

“I still have concerns, yes. But I still think it’s something we can do, it just takes trying,” McGlaun said.

The new voting machines arrived on Feb. 3, Sosebee said. Athens is due to receive 318 machines in total by May and as of today, has 298 machines. Sosebee said the state spent $1.35 million on providing the county with the new voting machines.

Since the ACC elections board opted to use paper ballots, she said the machines are now stored in a voting equipment room on Lexington Road.

Sosebee told the ACC elections board she was introduced to the new voting system in 2017 and spoke to Dominion in August 2019. In emails presented by the defense, Evans emailed Sosebee on Jan. 30 about his concerns on whether the screens on the machines could be seen by someone from a distance.

On Feb. 12, in an email to Harvey, Sosebee described her worry of how to prevent others from taking photos, looking at screens or pulling back curtains on the voting booths — she told the defense she’s faced these issues before.

In the email, Harvey advised her to use curtains and poll workers to inhibit others from viewing the voters’ screens. Sosebee then created diagrams and a sketch of a layout of the machines that she said would ensure voter secrecy.

On March 3, during the ACC Board of Elections meeting, Sosebee presented these plans and said she was confident voter secrecy could be ensured by March 24 — she said she still believes that is true at the hearing.

Sosebee said 500 residents voted early, and she said she was told by the ACC Board of Elections that those votes would still be counted.

There were no complaints about the new machines during early voting, Sosebee said.

The final decision

People in the community voiced concerns over the new machines to the ACC Board of Elections as early as November 2019, Evans said.

He said he was present during early voting in the ACC Board of Elections office — 10 machines were allotted but only eight fit into the space and were used. He said he walked through a door and could see the screen of a voting machine through a sliding glass window.

“To me that’s a violation of voter privacy, no one is supposed to see your vote,” Evans said.

When asked if the public could be kept from the door and if the window could be covered with the help of poll workers, Evans said yes.

Germany asked if it was true ACC attorney Judd Drake advised against going forward with paper ballots during the March 3 meeting, and Evans said the county attorney only told him the decision would be “challenged.”

When asked if the ACC Board of Elections would use paper ballots for the local primary election in May, Evans said they would unless presented with evidence to ensure voter privacy and a change in the statute to require one machine per 250 people voting.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger asked Evans why he did not say anything to the voting center staff or say “you need to stop this” in the moment. Evans said he did not say anything due to “tension” among staff and board members and felt more comfortable addressing it as a board.

“Today what I’ve heard is there is an issue with the elections board and its staff, and that the chairman has no confidence and expressed dissatisfaction with its staff and the county attorney,” Raffensperger said. “I recommend you work collegiately as a team as we are expecting 5 million people to vote in the November election.”

Raffensperger ended the statements by stating the ACC Board of Elections failed to provide evidence in for case. Raffensperger said Evans’ statements displayed “dysfunction” and lack of confidence within the staff and board, and that the board had indeed violated Georgia law.