Georgia -- (NPR)  A federal judge has denied a request to move all of this fall's municipal elections in Georgia away from "unsecure, unreliable and grossly outdated technology" and toward hand-marked paper ballots that are optically scanned and counted.

The order from U.S. District Court Judge Amy Totenberg Thursday also requires the state to cease using its direct-recording electronic voting machines after 2019 and expresses doubts about the state's ability to roll out its new ballot-marking device system in time for the March 24, 2020, presidential primary election.

In the decision, Totenberg also directs the Georgia secretary of state's office to develop a plan to "address errors and discrepancies in the voter registration database" and have paper copies of poll books at each voting precinct.

The state must also create a contingency plan for the 2020 elections in case the new system is not completely rolled out. That includes designating several pilot jurisdictions that will use hand-marked paper ballots with optical scanners in their elections this fall.

A group of election integrity advocates and Georgia voters sued the secretary of state's office in 2017 alleging that the current DRE system is not secure and is vulnerable to hacking. Last year, Totenberg denied a similar motion for preliminary injunction that would have blocked the DREs from being used in the 2018 midterm election.

The current motion sought to prevent the machines from being used this fall in several hundred local elections.

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After a two-day hearing in July, Totenberg said deciding on the matter was "very daunting," as she heard cybersecurity experts express serious concerns about the security of Georgia's elections and the logistical concerns local elections officials had about switching to hand-marked paper ballots under a tight timeline.

Ultimately, Totenberg wrote that she deferred to the state's legislative and procurement processes to select and implement a new system in time for next year's elections.

"The Court remains concerned, based upon the entirety of the record evidence, about the State's capacity to manage a transition to paper ballots for the 2019 elections while overseeing and undergoing a simultaneous transition to the newly enacted voting system during this time," Totenberg wrote in the order.

On July 29, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger announced Dominion Voting Systems would be the state's new elections vendor, winning a $107 million contract to provide new touch-screen machines that print out a paper ballot with a summary of the voter's selection plus a QR code that is scanned and stored.

Marilyn Marks, executive director of the nonprofit group Coalition for Good Governance and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, called the ruling a victory for election security advocates.

"This is the first time that a court in the United States has held that you cannot do electronic voting and it must be replaced," she said. Marks' group plans to sue to block the new ballot-marking devices from being used as well.

Raffensperger's office released a statement Thursday that his office was still reviewing the ruling and that he was "pleased the Court endorsed the policy decision of the state's elected officials to move to a paper ballot voting system in time for the 2020 elections while not disrupting 2019 elections."


NPR News

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