For a number of reasons, Georgia unlikely to end machine voting

ATLANTA - Attorney Walker Chandler has a history of tilting at windmills, and many observers thought that's what he was doing Monday when he made oral arguments before the Georgia Supreme Court for scrapping the state's electronic voting machines.

Chandler told the justices that using the hugely popular machines are unconstitutional because they can't be physically audited, which strips anyone who uses them of their right to vote.

He has a tough row to hoe. Overturning any law is always difficult, and his case may be crippled by one particular deficiency: he has no proof of any damages.

Chandler and other opponents of the touch-screen voting machines have never been able to identify any victims. Indeed, he acknowledges that no election results have been corrupted by the machines.

"We do not accuse this existing administration or [former Secretary Cathy] Cox of any fraud," he said. "Well, that covers the past and present. It does not cover the future, and that is the potential problem in the future."

Other challenges to these machines have been tossed out of court for insufficient evidence, and a Fulton County Superior Court judge threw this one out, too. Chandler is arguing an appeal just to get the case sent back down for a full trial.

For Chandler, election law isn't just another case. He's been the Libertarian Party nominee three times, for lieutenant governor in 1990 and 1994 and attorney general in 1998. And he convinced the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down a state law mandating drug tests for candidates.

Unverifiable voting machines are one more reason for questioning government, he said.

"We're all asked to trust the government and its assurances about these machines," he said. "History tells us otherwise."

At least he's consistent. When Justice Hugh Thompson pointed out that the giant, lever-operated voting machines replaced by the touch-screen computers would also be illegal in Chandler's reasoning because they never left a paper audit trail, Chandler didn't hesitate to agree.

Only paper ballots will do, despite the time required to count them.

"Accuracy is a lot more important than speed. And public confidence is a lot more important than speed," he said.

Of course, Georgia's most notorious case of election fraud occurred with paper ballots in a race that temporarily resulted in three men claiming to be governor in 1946. Newspaper reporter George Goodwin uncovered the scandal when he found dead people's names on the rolls of those who had voted in Herman Talmadge's hometown of McRae.

Jimmy Carter's early political career almost was derailed by opponents literally stuffing the ballot box in a state Senate race.

"Georgia had a system that was often subject to fraud," said Stefan Ritter, the senior assistant attorney general representing the state in a shockingly frank statement for the government to make.

On the other hand, critics of electronic voting have little to talk about beyond the possibility of manipulation.

According to state officials, the only way to rig an election now would be to somehow gain access to individual machines after their pre-election certification, quickly remove 17 screws, change seven tiny "dip switches" inside each gizmo, load the adulterated software and put it all back together while the machine is out of the locked storage room and unsupervised by the poll workers. Critics' fraud scenario is just not likely, said Ritter, and certainly not on a large scale.

"There is no basis to their claim," he said.

It appears the justices felt the same way. In the first high-profile case before the court since Leah Sears stepped down as chief justice and Carole Hunstein succeeded her, the panel asked few questions. No zingers were fired at the state's lawyer, Ritter, which is usually what happens when the justices are building up internal debating points before overturning a major law.

In fact, an upset is less likely because only five justices heard oral arguments - Gov. Sonny Perdue hasn't named a replacement for Sears, and Justice Robert Benham, the only former chief justice on the court, wasn't present.

A decision is due in about three months. Though Walker Chandler has won some significant appeals, it's quite possible the published poet and novelist may have championed a losing cause this time.

walter.jones@morris.com, (404) 589-8424

More

Savannah River Site resumes normal activity

A suspicious item was discovered Wednesday afternoon at the Savannah River National Laboratory which prompted emergency responseactivities.

... Read more