Last week, ASD Elections Integrity Fellow David Levine spoke with Joseph Kirk, election supervisor for Bartow County, Georgia, on the latest episode of Ballots and Bagels. They talked about preparing for and administering Georgia’s May 24th primary, as well as ways to strengthen the security of future elections. Please note that the interview took place before the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) release an advisory regarding vulnerabilities affecting certain versions of Dominion Voting Systems’ software, which are used in a number of states, including Georgia.

Listen to the full interview in the above video. Below are the key takeaways:

Robust Post-Election Audits and Recounts Can Build Voter Confidence

Tensions ran high ahead of, during, and even after Georgia’s May 24, 2022 primary. It was the state’s first big test following the adoption of election legislation that made significant changes to Georgia’s absentee voting, early voting, vote counting, and election office operations. A number of candidates running for office steadfastly maintained, falsely, that the 2020 election was rigged and stolen from former President Donald Trump, and CISA was still examining whether voting touchscreens used in Georgia had security vulnerabilities that could easily be exploited. The primary itself also was not without hiccups. For example, computer programming errors caused an initial inaccurate vote count in a Dekalb County commission race, which subsequently led to a recount of the race’s paper ballots.

One potential solution to addressing the above election security issues is to conduct rigorous post-election audits. “Audits can counter these [false] narratives,” Kirk explains. “It is a simple low-tech solution to make sure these [election] systems are secure.”

Kirk has helped spearhead Georgia’s adoption of risk-limiting audits (RLAs), post-election tabulation procedures that randomly examine enough voted paper ballots until there is strong statistical evidence confirming the winners and losers of the audited contests. RLAs often reduce the number of ballots that need to be reviewed to ensure an election result is correct because the ballots that are used for statistical sampling rely on two factors: margin of victory for the audited contest(s) and risk limits. In November 2019, Kirk help lead Bartow County’s first risk-limiting audit pilot, and following Georgia’s 2020 presidential election, he contributed to the state’s full hand-count statewide risk-limiting audit

To further bolster public confidence in the election results, Kirk also believes more election officials should consider hand counting all paper ballots after the results have been initially tabulated. “When someone calls and asks ‘how do they know my ballot was counted?’ I can say with confidence, I know because we checked every single ballot, and yours was in there, so yours was counted properly,” says Kirk. 

While hand counting all ballots is not without drawbacks, especially for larger jurisdictions, Kirk believes that more practice would resolve many of the potential issues. Kirk explains that in 2020, it took Bartow County three days to hand count all the ballots because “there was a lot of scrambling and it was rushed.” Now, however, his office can conduct audits in a day or less, as the team did in this primary and the 2021 United States Senate runoff elections.

Proposed Solutions

  • All states should adopt robust post-election audits to ensure that the reported winners are the winners and alleviate concerns that good-faith actors may have about the results. States may also want to consider recounting all ballots by hand for certain races to verify exact vote counts, which could further bolster public confidence in the results.
  • Congress should appropriate funding to facilitate the transition of all outstanding paperless voting jurisdictions to paper ballots and expedite the implementation of post-election audits that can at least provide compelling evidence that the reported winner is the winner and the loser is the loser.

Early Education and Observation in the Election Processes is Vital

The May 24th primary in Georgia was a benchmark for the state of U.S. politics. Many supporters of the “Big Lie” were running in the state’s Republican primary races.

Therefore, it is not surprising that Kirk says the biggest threat to election integrity is the “lack of knowledge about how elections are actually administered.” According to Kirk, the absence of easily accessible, accurate election information “creates a vacuum of knowledge that anyone can fill with a keyboard and internet access. Once people read it online, [they believe] it must be true.” 

Kirk maintains that there are two simple solutions to restoring voter confidence this: education and transparency. 

For the education component, Kirk explains that it “all starts in the schools.” While the U.S. education system emphasizes the importance of voting as a democratic value, schools do not teach the “nuts and bolts” about the voting process, including providing information on how to register to vote and the different options available to them for casting their ballot. “If we can get to them [in school] and educate them on the process, we’ll see less and less misinformation because they will already have the right information.”

Kirk has witnessed this firsthand. “I used to go to a high school in the county—and I want to start doing this again when I have the time—and teach the senior class about the voting process,” he shared. “What we noticed out of that segment of our community was that there were less questions about the process after a few years of doing that because the kids would start going home and talk to their parents and neighbors and friends, and they would spread what they learned from school.”

The same is true for election observation. “The political parties—including the Republican Party—trust my office because I always emphasize transparency and observation,” explains Kirk. While election disinformation stems from ignorance, “most of what I do is observable,” Kirk says. “When individuals take the opportunity to observe their office actually opening and counting the ballots, they feel a lot better…But that involves volunteering your time, making time to come in and go through the process, going through training, watching, and not getting paid for it.”

As Kirk begins looking toward November, his biggest advice for election officials preparing for the midterm elections is to welcome election observation and participation. “Poll watchers and observers are your friends. Letting observers in, letting them know that you are grateful that they are there, and educating them on the process creates an ally, an advocate.”  

Proposed Solutions:

  • States and their localities should implement school voting education programs that inform students about the voting process, including how to register to vote, the importance of voting, and the different ways one can successfully cast a ballot.
  • Election offices should make their voting processes as transparent as possible, without compromising the security of their election equipment, processes, and workers.
  • Election workers should welcome and encourage election observation, while putting in place contingency measures for handling bad-faith actors.

The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.