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State probe targets election activists critical of new voting system

Targets urged hand-marked ballots, now accused of interfering at polling places

ATLANTA — The Georgia Secretary of State has launched an investigation into two activists who have been critical of the state’s new voting system. 

The secretary of state’s office initially said the pair interfered with voters during recent elections in November. Later Thursday, the office said the activists were in too close to voters while observing them in precincts.

Georgia Republicans rallied around the purchase of a new computerized voting system more than a year ago.  And that system got its first live tryout in a handful of municipal elections earlier this month. 

RELATED: State gets first test of new voting system before ambitious 2020 switch

During those tryouts, paper ballot activist Marilyn Marks says she visited three precincts. And Georgia Tech professor Rich DeMillo says he, separately, also visited three precincts, along with his wife.

He says he was there observe the new machines and how voters used them for a research project.   

"We received complaints from not only poll officials but also from voters," said Frances Watson, chief investigator for the Secretary of State.

"The allegation is that the individuals were in the enclosed space without authorization," he said.

RELATED: Judge blasts Georgia officials' handling of election system

But DeMillo says each time, he observed voting with the blessing of the poll manager.

"I would go up and I would introduce myself to the poll manager," DeMillo said, "and they would kind of escort me to an area. 'You stay in that area.' That’s where I stayed," he said. He said he never interacted with voters or got close enough to their voting machines to see their election choices.

In an email, Marks said "any member of the public can observe elections" per state law. She says she spoke to polling place managers "and I went where other observers were, so no one said I was in the wrong space."

The state’s new voting system is expected to be fully activated by next March. Marks and DeMillo had been vocal opposing the computer-based system – attending meetings of the SAFE commission, which sought public input on whether the state should buy new machines or use paper ballots instead. 

RELATED: After petition, Georgia to reexamine new voting system

Marks and DeMillo were in the paper ballot camp, at odds with powerful Republicans like soon-to-be Governor Brian Kemp.  

DeMillo argued that computer hacking makes voting machines too risky.  At Georgia Tech, DeMillo was the dean of the College of Computing.  At Hewlett Packard, he was the chief technology officer.  He was among several computer experts the state mostly disregarded because state officials did not want to revert to a paper ballot system.

RELATED: Georgia election officials accused of deleting evidence

"People that knows the ways of the past know that paper is the easiest way to rig an election," then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp told 11Alive News in August 2018. 

Jimmy Carter seemingly lost his first election to the state Senate in 1962 after an official in Quitman County led a ballot-stuffing scheme for Carter's opponent.  A court overturned the election and the official went to prison.

RELATED: Critics: New Georgia voting system risks secret balloting

DeMillo says he has moved on to research whether voters are verifying their votes with the paper ballots printed by the new voting system.

DeMillo says the accusation of interference at the precincts is puzzling at best.

"I wasn’t in any position to interfere with them. I was off to the side," he said. "I didn’t talk to any voters at all."

The investigation is not a criminal investigation at this point – but could become one, if the state election board decides to send to file to a district attorney or the attorney general.

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