Republicans in the state Capitol consider House Bill 316, which would authorize the purchase of a new $150 million touchscreen voting system, to be a very important piece of legislation.
Perhaps the most significant of the session.
We know this because, to pass it, House GOP leaders are willing to concede that Stacey Abrams and her fellow Democrats made legitimate points during the 2018 campaign, when they cited flaws in Georgia’s electoral system.
“That’s an implicit part of the bill, for sure,” House Minority Leader Bob Trammell of Luthersville said Tuesday. “I don’t know how else you read it.”
We spoke just before HB 316 received its first hearing by a House panel. By Trammell’s count, portions of four Democratic bills, all intended to address issues arising from the 2018 campaign, are wrapped into the voting machine legislation.
All four bills were authored by state Rep. Kimberly Alexander, D-Hiram. Trammell provided the second signature on each. Mary Margaret Oliver of Decatur, the ranking Democrat on the House Governmental Affairs Committee, which is overseeing the measure, provided the third signature.
“The bill before you is somewhat a bipartisan effort,” said state Rep. Barry Fleming, the author of HB 316, as the hearing opened. Fleming noted that Speaker pro tem Jan Jones of Milton and House Majority Leader Jon Burns of Newington have signed onto the Republican offer.
In other words, top leadership is engaged on both sides – a sign that negotiations could become intense in the days ahead.
Tuesday will go down as one of the stranger days in Georgia politics, a day when the state’s electoral system was the subject of scorched earth condemnation in one venue, and hard bargaining at another.
In the morning, we had a U.S. House subcommittee chaired by Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, at the Carter Center. House Democrats in Washington want to restore a feature of the Voting Rights Act, struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, that required certain states with certain histories to submit changes in their voting laws to federal scrutiny before they could go into effect.
Georgia was one of those states.
The first witness was Democrat Stacey Abrams, the former candidate for governor who is now mulling a U.S. Senate run. Her post-campaign organization, Fair Fight Action, has made Georgia’s electoral system the topic of a federal lawsuit.
Abrams walked members of Congress (all Democrats) through what she called “a systemic breakdown” in Georgia’s voting system. She accused Brian Kemp, the winning gubernatorial candidate who also supervised the election as secretary of state, of both guile and ineptitude.
“Incompetence and malfeasance operate in tandem,” Abrams said.
The debate over HB 316 began a few hours later at the state Capitol. The fight will primarily focus on what voting machines Georgia voters will use in the 2020 presidential election.
A commission appointed by Secretary of State Kemp last year recommended electronic voting machines with a computerized system that prints paper ballots — in a form which may or may not be legible to the voter. A bar code, for instance. Most Republicans back this approach, but not all.
At Tuesday’s hearing, state Rep. Scot Turner, R-Holly Springs, pointedly asked a member of the Kemp commission for the recommendation from the lone cybersecurity expert on that panel. The Georgia Tech expert recommended a paper ballot filled out by hand, he was told.
Most Democrats take that position, but not all. Some have quietly argued that a touchscreen system would be easier for the disabled and elderly to navigate.
Which explains the sweeteners that Fleming put front and center when he introduced HB 316.
During the congressional hearing earlier in the day, multiple witnesses pointed to an attempt by Randolph County officials to shutter seven of its nine voting locations just weeks before the November general election.
Such decisions by local governments would require 30-day public notice, and couldn’t be done within 60 days of a primary or general election, in the current version of HB 316.
Last October, Gwinnett County election officials were found to be rejecting 10 percent of absentee ballots, alleging that signatures on the mailed ballot didn’t match the signature on a voter’s registration form. A federal judge was required to step in.
In HB 316, a suspected mismatch of signatures would require county election officials to automatically mail the voter a provisional ballot, which would be counted when the situation is resolved.
Even before 2018, Democrats challenged Kemp’s purging of thousands of voters because their names on registration forms didn’t match – even down to a hyphen – with lists generated by the state’s drivers license data base, or with Social Security information.
In HB 316, before serving notice to voters that their registration is suspect, the state would be required first to make sure that “the failure to verify is not the result of a data entry error or other fault of the board of registrars.”
There’s political significance to this: Fleming, the author of HB 316, was also author of the 2017 legislation that wrote “exact-match” into law.
No doubt, some will argue that the above cures aren’t enough. Democrats still have some serious issues with HB 316. Moreover, temptations placed on the table today can disappear tomorrow. Suspicion still runs high.
Trammell, the House minority leader, worried aloud that HB 316 wouldn’t require the purchased voting equipment and software to obtain federal certification.
“It’s already in state law, counsel tells us,” Fleming replied.
“Can you get me a cite?” Trammell asked. That’s legi-speak for “citation in the state code.”
“We’ll get you a cite,” Fleming said.
The argument over voting machines wasn’t settled Tuesday. But look beyond that. The first step in addressing a problem — in this case, evidence that Georgia’s electoral rules can be gamed — is to admit its existence. Like it or not, when you propose a solution, you’ve admitted there’s something to be fixed.
Republicans have now done that. And they’ve put it in writing.