Who will protect Georgia’s vote count?

The whole world is watching Georgia’s US Senate runoff elections. Set to finish January 5, the elections will decide who controls the balance of power in the pivotal next US Congress.

With them comes a “hidden” down-ballot Georgia Public Service Commission race that hovers over America’s last two big nuke reactors … and that could upend the whole senatorial outcome.

Hundreds of millions of dollars are pouring into the state. Every nanosecond of radio/TV time has been bought and overpaid for.

The preliminary battles have raged over voter registration and turnout, precinct closures, misinformation about where people can vote, intimidation of citizens waiting in line during early voting, rejection of “flawed” ballots, and much more.

But they all pale before one issue: will there be a fair and accurate vote count?

The answer depends on whether grassroots citizen groups can muster the expertise, the staff, and the clout to make sure ballots are correctly marked, properly scanned, and accurately counted–and then rightly recounted.

It’s a decisive undertaking.

Ballots mailed to voters are mostly sent back through the postal service or put in drop boxes. They can also be returned in person to election boards, which may be the safest option of all.

They’re then screened. Signatures are checked, markings are verified. Partisan advocates can observe the process and are often hot to disqualify. The Georgia Secretary of State’s office is now claiming a tiny percentage of the cast ballots are being thrown out.

Georgia does have a “curing” process, where voters whose ballots are rejected can be called or otherwise notified. That correction process can be uneven.

Once the ballots are approved, they’re scanned directly into an electronic reader. The ballots themselves are preserved.

The images made during the scanning process and then electronically read can easily be saved on hard drives. There’s no logical reason to erase these images, which make recounts much easier to do. But many counties do it anyway.

Voters who personally bring their ballots into a voting center (as opposed to an election board) usually must surrender them, then vote using a touchscreen marking device.

Ironically, Trump is loudly alleging fraud on Dominion machines bought (for more than $100 million) by Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State. The purchase was bitterly opposed by voting rights advocates. (A Dominion representative had a close personal relationship with Georgia governor Brian Kemp, who denies that had anything to do with the purchase.)

Rather than providing the voter with a cheap pen, these hugely expensive touchscreen devices create a paper ballot with a bar code. The ballots are then scanned and counted. The tallies are sent from the counties to central tabulators for a statewide vote count.

In a vulnerable pivot point, the data can be downloaded onto thumb drives and personally driven by a local election official to be compiled and counted. Internet transmission from the counties to the state’s central tabulator is also an option. Hand-tallied totals could also be printed on paper and driven in, but it’s rarely done that way.

In any event, tapes of the results from the precinct scanners are legally required to be posted on the door of each precinct, for visible monitoring by the public.

Both Georgia Senate runoffs are virtually certain to be recounted.

Likewise the Public Service Commission race, on which billions of rate case dollars depend. Though it’s gotten virtually no media attention, this race features Georgia’s first African-American PSC candidate, Daniel Blackman. His focus on grassroots campaigning, huge cost overruns at the state’s two new nuclear reactors, and the critical issue of broadband in rural areas may increase turnout and affect the senatorial outcome.

Overall, the whole system reeks of vulnerability. Bitter disputes now rage over alleged stripping of the voter rolls, massive shutdown of voting centers in African-American neighborhoods, the question of how many legitimate voters actually get their ballots in the mail, and more.

The process of challenging and curing ballots is intensely contested. The incoming paper ballots require secure tracking technology and incorruptible chains of custody.

The bitterly disputed ballot marking devices produce a paper record that voters can inspect–but they rarely do. The human eye cannot confirm that the printed bar code accurately reflects the voter’s intent. Voters can’t read bar codes.

Computerized scanning devices are hackable. So are vote counts transmitted by internet, as well as thumb drives hand-carried to the central tabulators. If the images are erased from the scanner’s memory cache, the recount process can be compromised.

These vulnerabilities can be cured. Preserving the electronic ballot images, for example, would render the inevitable recounts far easier and more accurate.

But only a powerful, highly qualified, well-coordinated team of election protectionists can make all this happen.

There are key symptoms to watch for. “Glitches” in the registration records and in the ballot marking devices lead to long lines, most frequently at college campuses and in areas with large percentages of non-white voters.

Precincts may report outcomes (as should be visible on the tapes posted on their doors) that vary wildly from local exit polls. In fact, this has been the case in many of this year’s US Senate races, including the ones won by Mitch McConnell and Lindsay Graham.

In Ohio 2004, the late-night vote count stopped for 100 minutes as John Kerry was 4.2% ahead. When the delay ended, George W. Bush mysteriously led by 2.5%, then won the presidency.

In Greene County that year, thousands of warehoused ballots sat open and unguarded. Despite a federal court order, 56 of Ohio’s 88 counties destroyed their voting records, preventing an accurate recount of that bitterly contested election.

All that and more could happen in Georgia within the next week. Grassroots groups such as the Atlanta NAACP, Citizens for Good Governance, Scrutineers.org, Audit USA, TrustVote and others are well-versed in various key pieces of the electoral process.

But without a massive, deeply committed task force of well-coordinated election protection activists, Georgia’s vote count could be up for grabs … no matter what its citizens actually want.

Originally published on Reader Supported News.

Bob Fitrakis & Harvey Wasserman co-convene the Grassroots Emergency Election Protection Coalition at www.electionprotection2024.org. Their many books reside at www.freepress.org, along with Bob’s Fitrakis Files. Harvey’s People’s Spiral of US History is at www.solartopia.org.

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