Monday, January 20, 2020

Concerns About Election Security Dominate Oconee County Board Of Commissioners Town Hall Meeting

***New Voting Equipment Demonstrated***

The citizens who turned out for the Oconee County Board of Commissioners Town Hall meeting last Tuesday had a few questions for members of the Commission.

They wanted to know about the widening of Experiment Station Road, about plans for the new Watkinsville Library, about the planned detour route for construction of the multi-grade intersection of the Oconee Connector and SR 316, and about plans for broadband improvements in the county.

But the citizens had a lot of questions for Oconee County Director of Elections and Registration Fran Leathers and Secretary of State Voter Education Coordinator Sarah Cornett.

Those present wanted to know if the new equipment will be connected to Internet, what would happen if the ballot printer ran out of ink or if the power goes out, and what the state has learned from use of the equipment experimentally last November.

Cornett said the new voting equipment will not be connected to the Internet, that provisions have been made to make sure the printers have ink, that power backup is provided for the equipment, and that problems last fall were small ones easily addressed.

Watkinsville City Council Member Dan Matthews, one of those asking questions, summed up his view during the questioning.

“I don’t have a huge amount of confidence,” Matthews said.

Town Hall Promotion

Board of Commissioners Chair John Daniell had promoted the voting equipment demonstration in announcing the Town Hall meeting, and it was clear at the meeting that many in attendance were there for that purpose.


Before the demonstration by the election officials, however, Daniell asked for questions from the audience of the Board.

Commissioners Chuck Horton, Mark Saxon and Mark Thomas had joined Daniell at the front of the room at the Community Center at Oconee Veterans Park on Hog Mountain Road. Commissioner William “Bubber” Wilkes was not in attendance.

I counted nine comments or questions of the commissioners during the initial part of the meeting, and 15 questions, often multi-pronged, of Cornett and Leathers.

The first person who spoke to the Commissioners thanked them for improvements to the intersection of Mars Hill Road with Virgil Langford Road and Rocky Branch Road.

The first question came from Peyton Magee, 1120 Loch Lomond Circle, near Butler’s Crossing. Magee is owner of the community subscription newsletter Loch Lomond Gazette, and he told the Commissioners he is 12 years old.

Peyton Magee wanted an update on the widening of Experiment Station Road, and Daniell told him the county is in the process of revising plans for the project. Daniell later said he expects the state to let a contract for the construction in 2021.

Library and Rails To Trails

Jane Bath, 2430 Snows Mill Road, in the west of the county, asked about plans for the new Watkinsville Library.

Daniell said not enough money is available to build a stand-along library, so it makes sense to incorporate the new library into the planned new Administration Building at the intersection of U.S. 441 Bypass and SR 15 (North Main Street) north of Watkinsville.

Dan Magee, 1120 Loch Lomond Circle, wanted to know if there is any progress on turning the rail line through the county into a Rails to Trails.

Daniell said there has been none.

Announcements by Danniell

Council Member Matthews asked Daniell if he had any announcements.

Commissioners Horton, Daniell, Thomas, Saxon

Daniell said the county is studying improvements to Hog Mountain Road, that the county intends to turn over to Watkinsville planning for improvements to Experiment Station Road from the U.S. 441 Bypass to Main Street, and that the state has extensive plans for improvements to SR 316 in the next eight years.

Dan Magee asked about improvements to the intersection of SR 316 and SR Loop 10.

Daniell said the state is working on plans for changes to that intersection and already has much of the needed right of way for the project.

Amry Harden, 1100 Briar Lakes Court, off Mars Hill Road, asked the Board for a reaction to the plans for a detour route when the state converts the intersection of the Oconee Connector and SR 316 into multigrade.

“They’ve not approached us about the detour route,” Daniell said of Georgia Department of Transportation designers.

Harden also asked about the county’s broadband initiative, and Daniell said planning continues on that project.

Voting Equipment Demonstration

Daniell turned the meeting over to Director of Elections and Registration Leathers at the end of the Town Hall meeting questions, and Leathers turned to Voter Education Coordinator Cornett for the demonstration.

Cornett With iPad For Voter Identification

Cornett showed those present how they will check in on an iPad, be given a voter card, similar to the one they have used in the past, and be directed to a Ballot Marking Device, also similar to the voting screen voters have used in past elections.

The Ballot Marking Device at the Town Hall meeting demonstration was loaded with a sample ballot asking questions about the state of Georgia.

The first question was: What is the state flower of Georgia? (The Cherokee Rose is the right answer.)

At the end of voting, the Ballot Marking Device prints an 8.5 by 11 inch sheet of paper that contains a QR Code to reflect the votes. It also contains a printed list of the actual votes.

The voter first is to verify the vote from the list and then take that sheet of paper to a scanner, which, according to Cornett, reads the QR Code and scans an image of the ballot. The record of the QR Code and the image of the ballot are stored on two separate memory cards in the scanner, she said.

After scanning the ballot, the scanner takes the ballot and places it into a hopper. That paper ballot, along with the image on the memory card, provide two separate records of the actual ballot, Cornett said.

All elections will be audited, Cornett said. “We’re still working out details to what extent that audit looks like, what the sample size will be, and how those are conducted.”

Questions Begin

Cornett had not finished her demonstration when the questions started.

The first, from Watkinsville City Council Member Matthews, had to do with write in ballots, and Leathers said that every choice would allow for write-in candidates.

Matthews accounted for six of the 15 questions asked during voting demonstration part of the meeting. (I counted the multi-pronged questions by Matthews and others as one.)

Michael Prochaska, editor of The Oconee Enterprise, asked who handled the voter ID during the check-in process.

Cornett said the voters will insert the ID in a slot behind the iPad so it can be scanned.

Matthews asked what would happen if there are problems with the ID.

Cornett said there is a manual entry option that the poll worker can use.

Toner And Internet

The next question was on toner for the ink. Cornett said counties can purchase a toner that will print 90,000 ballots from a single scanner.


Leathers told the Board of Elections and Registration earlier this month that the county has 30,056 registered voters.

Former State Representative Deborah Gonzalez asked if the equipment was connected to the Internet.

Cornett said the Ballot Marking Device is “not connected to the Internet and is not storing your ballot or your vote. All it is basically doing is a method of printing the ballot.”

The scanner also is not connected to the Internet, Cornett said.

“The only way that the results are read is actually pulling those SD cards out of the scanner and inputting them into the central reader in the county election office,” she continued.

Crumbled Ballots And Number of Scanners

Matthews asked Cornett is she had “crumbled” a ballot or checked to see what would happen if a magnet or something else “corrupted” the SD card.

“The scanner is not your home office or regular office scanner,” she said. “It’s a very industrial scanner. So it is set up to both accommodate a large volume of scans as well as crinkled or heavy sheets.”

Possible corruption of the SD cards is an “aspect of the cyber security testing” and she is waiting on a report, she said. She said she would be glad to share it with Matthews.

Former State Representative Jonathan Wallace asked Leathers how many scanners would be at each polling place.

Leathers said at present the county has one scanner for each of the county’s 12 precincts, and one Ballot Marking Device and printer for every 250 voters in the precincts.

Custody Of Cards

Dan Magee asked about the “chain of custody” for the SD cards.

Scanner With Card Reader Slots

“Almost any threat to the system would be a physical threat,” Cornett said. “You would have to be physically near the cards.”

The county is responsible for that security, she said.

The card readers on the scanner are locked and sealed, she said.

Leathers said a poll manager and an assistant will bring one of the cards back to her office at the end of the voting. The other SD Card will stay at the scanner “locked and secure at the site.”

Leathers said her office will be working with the Sheriff’s Office to handle security at the site once the election is completed.

Power Loss and Coca-Cola

Matthews asked what happens if the power goes out.

Leathers and Cornett said that battery back-up will be available at each site and that the scanner has a backup in the device.

“I’m just concerned that something’s going to happen that you haven’t planned for yet. I don’t have a huge amount of confidence,” Matthews said.

“Even if there is a power surge, that will not affect the results on the SD cards,” Cornett said.

“Have you tested by pouring a Coca-Cola down into it. Something like that is going to happen somewhere. You can just count on it,” Matthews said.

“I’m just concerned that you haven’t given it enough stress testing,” he continued.

“I hear that concern,” Garnett said.

Leathers said the county will have paper ballots at the polling places that can be filled out by hand and that the scanner can read these paper ballots.

Spoiled Ballots And Scanning

Another questioner asked if the scanner could read the paper ballot if a child writes on it.


“If you essentially tamper with the QR code so it is no longer readable,” Cornett said, “it won’t be readable by the computer.”

The QR scanner would detect the problem and spit it back out as unreadable, she said.

“In that situation, you would have to spoil that ballot and repeat the process,” she said.

The same person wanted to know if the voter had to wait for the ballot to be read and stored in the bin.

“You as voter should wait until you get the message ‘Ballot Successfully Passed’,” Cornett said. It should take a “few seconds,” she said.

ID Matches And Senior Voters

Matthews asked about the required match between the ID and the name on the voter registration.

Cornett said “best practice” is to ask a person to use a provisional ballot if the names don’t match.

Dan Magee wanted to know what help would be available to “seniors” who have problems with the equipment.

Leathers said marking the ballot on the Ballot Marking Device is very similar to casting a ballot on the old equipment.

“We will have someone, we’ll call a door monitor, that will help you,” Leathers said.

Marswood Hall And 2018 Experiment

Prochaska asked if someone would be at Malcom Bridge Middle School to direct people to the new voting location at Marswood Hall at St. Philothea Greek Orthodox Church, 3761 Mars Hill Road.

Matthews And Leathers At Ballot Marking Device

Leathers said there would be.

Another questioner wanted to know what “glitches” the Secretary of State Office had identified from the experimental use of the equipment in 10 counties last November.

Cornett said the majority of the issues were “technological.”

“All of them were able to be solved honestly in less than a minute,” she said.

“I’ve heard of no issues of the scanner jamming or the printer jamming or not printing ballots,” she said. “I’ve heard of no issues of the printer printing the wrong ballot or someone’s card be encoded wrong.”

Ongoing Challenges

The decision of Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to purchase the Ballot Marking Devices to replace the existing equipment has been a controversial one in some quarters.

The devices do produce a paper trail, which the old voting machines did not. But the machines, as Cornett stated, read the QR Code, not the marked ballot that the voter is asked to verify.

Another problem is that a study by researchers at the University of Michigan, reported on in the media on Jan. 8, found that voters do not do a good job of checking ballots after they cast them.

The National Academies of Sciences Engineering Medicine in September of 2018 released a report saying that “all local, state, and federal elections should be conducted using human-readable paper ballots by the 2020 presidential election.”

Georgia’s ballots will not be “human-readable” because voters will not be able to determine if the QR Code matches the ballot that the Ballot Marking Device prints. The integrity of the ballot for that reason depends on the security of the Ballot Marking Device.

Just after the Town Hall Meeting, the Associated Press reported that a security expert for the plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit against the state submitted an affidavit saying a Secretary of State server containing election data had been compromised in December of 2014 and left exposed to the open Internet for six months.

That AP story appeared in many media outlets, including the Athens Banner-Herald, where it was the top story on page 1 on Jan. 19.


The video below is of the entire Town Hall Meeting on Jan. 14.

Daniell turned the meeting over to Leathers at 27:25.

Leathers introduced Cornett, who immediately began a demonstration of the voting equipment.

To see the demonstration, go to 28:28.

A short clip of Matthews casting a ballot on the equipment is at 1:06:28 in the video.


Jim Gaither said...

"Leathers that the county has 30,056 registered voters."

Lee, I don't doubt your reportage but I wonder how realistic Leathers' number is.

The most recent census figures I find claims 39,272 residents of Oconee as of July 2018. Extrapolating that figure to today would give Oconee around 42,000 residents based on recent growth rates.

The same source says 26.7 percent of residents are younger than 18 and therefore ineligible to be registerd. Taking .733 times 42,000 would mean only 30,786 residents are eligible to be registered. We may be public-spirited in Oconee but I have trouble believing that almost 100 percent of us have bothered to register.

Either Leathers is wrong or the Census Bureau is wrong or I've made a mistake in my counting or there are a whole bunch of non-resident folks who are registered in Oconee for some reason. Maybe Leathers' list needs some purging.

Lee Becker said...


Your observation is sound. I have reported before on the high level of registration in the county, based on the analysis you have done. In fact, Oconee County was singled out by a conservative organization a few years ago as an example of a county with unrealistically high registration lists.

Two explanations are in order. First, the count Leathers gave includes both active an inactive voters. Many of the inactive voters likely are no longer in the county and will be purged.

Second, the Census estimates are just that, and they are based on the base Census figures that are almost 10 years old. We won't have better data for another year.

Thanks for leaving the comment.