Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger answers questions after Tuesday’s passage of a bill authorizing the purchase of a new $150 million election system that includes a paper ballot printed with a ballot marking device. Opponents to the bill, including many Democrats, say it would still leave Georgia's elections vulnerable to hacking and tampering. Bob Andres, bandres@ajc.com
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com

The Jolt: Cost estimates on voting machines are misleading, conservative groups charge

A pair of conservative groups has accused Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger of purposely misleading members of the Legislature about the costs of implementing a system of touch-screen voting machines that would be authorized by a measure passed by the House on Tuesday.

The joint letter from the National Election Defense Coalition and FreedomWorks, dated Wednesday, was addressed to members of the Senate Ethics Committee, chaired by Kay Kirkpatrick, R-Marietta.

“The Secretary of State is circulating a cost analysis that is profoundly misleading and wildly inflates the costs of conducting elections with hand-marked paper ballots,” the letter states.

A spokeswoman for Raffensperger disputed the criticism, and has sent us an analysis that it has offered to state lawmakers. There’s a link to it below.

House Bill 316 would switch Georgia’s voting machines to a computerized system that relies on printed ballots instead of hand-marked ones. One complaint cited by the letter:

The analysis provided by Secretary Raffensperger includes the costs to purchase equipment for hand-marked paper ballots ($40-60 million) and the cost to run elections with hand marked paper ballots for ten years, claiming a cost of $ 224 million. This is being compared to the cost associated with HB316 which includes only the cost to purchase the equipment. The Secretary has not provided the estimate to run elections for ten years on electronic ballot marking devices required in HB 316 which are considerable and described below. The Secretary’s analysis is like comparing the cost of buying a Chevrolet - plus insurance, gas and repairs for ten years - to the cost of a buying a Bentley and then trying to insist the Bentley is cheaper.

Click here to download the NEDC/FreedomWorks letter in its entirety.

Here’s the analysis sent from Raffensperger’s office.

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It’s early yet, but a breakdown of the early votes cast in Gwinnett County’s referendum to expand MARTA can’t be too encouraging for transit fans. 

The breakdown of the 2,500 or so votes by the data guru Ryan Anderson at Georgia Votes shows that roughly two-thirds of them are white and more than half are over 65. That’s a disproportionate amount of white voters for a Democratic-leaning county that’s one of the most diverse in Georgia. 

In today’s AJC, our colleague Tyler Estep takes a look at the GOTV efforts of pro-transit forces.

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Our AJC colleague Mark Niesse reports that a bill introduced in the state Senate on Wednesday has reopened the annual debate over “religious liberty” protections. Sponsors of SB 221 say its the mirror-image of the federal version that Gov. Brian Kemp has promised to sign into law.

A taste of the identical language: “Laws neutral toward religion may burden religious exercise as surely as laws intended to interfere with religious exercise.”

And this: “Government may substantially burden a person's exercise of religion only if it demonstrates that application of the burden to the person is: (1) In furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) The least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”

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Windstream, an Arkansas-based firm that provides Internet service to much of rural Georgia, has declared bankruptcy -- but says that won’t stop its service to customers. The firm, which receives federal subsidies for its service, has been the object of a great number of complaints.

U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, has had a long-running battle with Windstream. Collins said Wednesday that bankruptcy won’t stop him asking for an accounting.

“For years, Windstream has taken advantage of customers and taxpayers by promising speeds they know they can’t meet and failing to provide consistent broadband service while collecting taxpayer dollars and receiving substantial federal tax breaks,” Collins said.

We also asked state Rep. Terry England, R-Auburn, if the Windstream bankruptcy would have any impact on legislation in the state Capitol to expand broadband in rural Georgia.

England said no. In fact, he said it would be fair to say that the lack of expanding service on Windstream’s part has been one of his concerns. 

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Larry Sabato’s “Crystal Ball,” the political research newsletter published by the University of Virginia, today reports on the pathway for President Donald Trump to win a second term in 2020. It includes this reference to a well-known Emory University professor:

Crystal Ball Senior Columnist Alan Abramowitz’s well-regarded presidential “Time for Change” model, which projects the two-party presidential vote, currently projects Trump with 51.4% of the vote based on the most recent measures of presidential approval and quarterly GDP growth (the model’s official projection is based off those figures in the summer of 2020).

Arguably, the state of the economy is the most important factor: If perceptions of its strength remain decent, the president could win another term. If there is a recession, his odds likely drop precipitously. 

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In Washington, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told one of your Insiders on Wednesday that his chamber could move soon to advance a more than $13 billion emergency spending bill to aid the victims of Hurricane Michael and other recent natural disasters. In an interview, the Kentucky Republican said U.S. Sens. Johnny Isakson and David Perdue have been “lobbying very hard” on the bill. “We’re in the process of putting one together that would also help Puerto Rico," McConnell said.

That’s the first public word from Senate GOP leadership that it plans to deliver on the natural disaster money more than four months after Hurricane Michael ravaged Georgia.

“I don't think anybody's arguing over whether or not this is a real emergency,” McConnell said. “A large number of your farmers in south Georgia have literally been wiped out.”

Democratic leaders have yet to weigh in on the bill, but its GOP authors have added money aimed at winning them over. That includes recovery funding for California, which was hit hard by wildfires last fall, and roughly $600 million in nutritional assistance for Puerto Rico.

Georgia officials in both D.C. and Atlanta have stepped up their lobbying push on Congress. Gov. Brian Kemp and Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black pressed the cause from Atlanta yesterday. 

“We lead in so many things,” said Black, “but now we’ve got to lead in recovery.”

Perdue, meanwhile, took to the Senate floor. 

“Our farmers simply cannot wait on disaster relief any longer,” the first-term Republican said on the Senate floor. “The situation in my state is dire.” 

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The testimony of former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen before the U.S. House Oversight Committee transfixed Washington for much of the Wedesday, but consider U.S. Rep. Jody Hice unmoved. The Monroe Republican, Georgia’s only member of Oversight panel, joined his Republican colleagues in arguing that Cohen’s testimony couldn’t be trusted at all. 
“We had a witness who was totally unreliable, who could not speak the truth consistently. Even in the hearing today there were several times where he contradicted himself, and that’s pretty much what we expected,” Hice told one of your Insiders. 

The House Freedom Caucus member, a staunch ally of the president’s, said Cohen presented no evidence that implicated the president.

Cohen testified that Trump knew in advance about WikiLeaks’ plans to release Hillary Clinton’s emails in summer 2016, and he presented a copy of a check with Trump’s signature on it that he said reimbursed him for hush money paid to porn star Stormy Daniels. 
“He put it out there as some sort of smoking gun and it was absolutely a nothing burger,” Hice said about the check.

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