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Pro-Trump Republicans in Georgia are circulating a voting machine conspiracy theory


Now Georgia Public Broadcasting's Stephen Fowler is here to give us more context for this fight over QR codes and touch-screen voting machines. Hi, Stephen.


PFEIFFER: Stephen, electronic touch-screen voting machines are not new in Georgia. They've been around for quite a while. When did people start objecting to them, and what were their concerns?

FOWLER: In 2002, Georgia's Democratic secretary of state switched from a grab bag of every county being able to pick its own election equipment to a uniform electronic voting system where you pick your choices on a touch screen, and the votes were saved on a memory card. Several groups, mainly these left-leaning voting organizations, had some concerns about that - lack of a paper trail for humans to check, potential cybersecurity concerns and, more recently, that technology and software being outdated. In 2017, some activists sued Georgia, saying electronic touch screens violated the Constitution, and they had evidence of errors in recent elections that meant that it needed to be changed imminently. That lawsuit is still ongoing, even though we do have a new voting system in Georgia that rolled out in 2020.

PFEIFFER: So to repeat, there is a new voting system. It's been there for about two years, but the lawsuit did not go away. Why is that?

FOWLER: Right. So the voting rights groups say Georgia's new system does address some of the issues because the new voting system is still a touch screen, but it prints out a piece of paper that has the text of your choices and a QR code, like we heard about, that scans the voters' choices and makes it easier and faster to count. They still have concerns about these QR codes and other cybersecurity issues. That's where it gets interesting. These far-right election deniers that we just heard about have now co-opted that lawsuit and some of the language to argue the whole thing is illegal and led to rigged results in 2020, taking some of these more legitimate questions about touch-screen voting and molding them to reject things they don't like. And like we heard in Lisa's story, these people are insisting upon more authoritarian remedies, and the local and state elections experts who are the ones in charge are misinformed and not these people.

PFEIFFER: Stephen, on the surface, it sounds like these groups have concerns in common, but you're saying that's not the case?

FOWLER: Well, in some ways, Sacha, it boils down to this. One side says they've got evidence voting equipment and rules are keeping some people from freely and fairly voting. The other alleges - without evidence, I should add - that a vast conspiracy is manipulating results to hurt pro-Trump candidates, and their solution is to eliminate voting options they don't like. These are not the same.

PFEIFFER: We are just weeks away from the midterms. Georgia is one of many states expected to have close elections again. Is that closeness affecting the level of trust voters have in the election system?

FOWLER: Absolutely. I mean, organized opposition to voting is not something that's just isolated to that one county we heard. It's videos and anecdotes from all over the state and, really, in many places all over the country where these presentations are given without evidence that voting equipment, more specifically QR codes, are illegal. And it's having a negative impact. There's a county in Georgia where the board of commissioners voted to ask the state to get rid of the voting machine. And we've had several local Republican Party groups claim to decertify the 2020 election.

And local election offices are being bogged down with these complaints and even lawsuits as they're trying to run elections here in Georgia. Now, to be clear, Democratic-leaning groups suing over QR codes because of cybersecurity concerns are not the same as calling elections officials traitors and showing up and harassing them over these things. But the overall question surrounding how Georgia's election system works has led people to be down on democracy and, frankly, more primed to not accept unfavorable results.

PFEIFFER: Pretty depressing. That's Georgia Public Broadcasting's Stephen Fowler. Thank you, Stephen.

FOWLER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Stephen Fowler
Stephen Fowler is a political reporter with NPR's Washington Desk and will be covering the 2024 election based in the South. Before joining NPR, he spent more than seven years at Georgia Public Broadcasting as its political reporter and host of the Battleground: Ballot Box podcast, which covered voting rights and legal fallout from the 2020 presidential election, the evolution of the Republican Party and other changes driving Georgia's growing prominence in American politics. His reporting has appeared everywhere from the Center for Public Integrity and the Columbia Journalism Review to the PBS NewsHour and ProPublica.
Alejandra Marquez Janse
Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
Brett Neely is an editor with NPR's Washington Desk, where he works closely with NPR Member station reporters on political coverage and edits stories about election security and voting rights.
Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.