AJC poll: Georgians support paper ballots and oppose voter purges

Grant Jones was first in line at Henry W. Grady High School in Atlanta as Georgia saw a lighter turnout of voters for a runoff election in December. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Grant Jones was first in line at Henry W. Grady High School in Atlanta as Georgia saw a lighter turnout of voters for a runoff election in December. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Most Georgia voters want elections conducted on paper ballots that they fill in themselves, not on ballots completed by a computer, according to a new poll by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The poll showed for the first time what kind of voting system Georgians prefer as legislators prepare to switch from the state's 16-year-old digital system. The purchase of new election equipment will cost tens of millions of dollars and change how the state's 7 million registered voters cast their ballots.

About 55 percent of respondents support paper ballots bubbled in by voters, while 35 percent favor paper ballots printed by a computer. The remaining 10 percent didn’t answer.

The AJC's poll asked registered voters across Georgia about some of the state's most important issues — including election integritygun rights and health care — that will be considered at the Georgia Capitol during this year's legislative session, which started Monday.

Many voters surveyed said they're concerned about election fairness and accuracy after last year's heated campaign for governor, when Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams refused to concede to Republican Brian Kemp because of problems reported by voters, including flipped votes, malfunctioning voting machines, long lines and canceled voter registrations. Kemp won the race by 1.4 percentage points.

About 53 percent of those surveyed said it was likely or very likely that obstacles to voting or problems with voting machines affected the outcome of the governor’s race.

“I knew people who lived in those areas where the machines were broken and where they didn’t have enough machines. Then we found out there were so many machines in storage that weren’t used. That’s a failure of the system,” said Shawna Fitzpatrick, a college educator from Duluth. “Think about all the people whose votes didn’t get counted.”

Others said allegations of election irregularities were overblown by Democrats seeking an excuse to justify Abrams’ loss.

“Democrats tried to create a case for fraud and failed,” said Robert Cook, a civil engineer from Kennesaw. “There simply wasn’t any.”

The poll, conducted Jan. 7 through Thursday by the University of Georgia’s School of Public and International Affairs, received responses from 702 registered voters across Georgia. It had a margin of error of 3.7 percentage points.

The poll also showed Gov. Brian Kemp's approval rating at just 37 percent, while nearly half of respondents said they view him unfavorably.

A slight majority of Georgians support the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, and 71 percent said Georgia should expand eligibility for Medicaid, the public health care program for the poor and disabled.

Voters surveyed opposed proposals allowing gun owners to carry a concealed weapon without a permit and taxing internet streaming services such as Netflix to raise money for rural internet access.

Paper ballots

A heated debate over Georgia's next voting system will take place at the Capitol in the coming weeks, as legislators decide how to best incorporate a paper backup along with electronic tallies. Georgia is one of the last four states to rely entirely on direct-recording electronic voting machines that lack a verifiable paper trail that could be used for recounts and audits.

Most voters polled appear to trust paper ballots bubbled in with a pen over computer-printed paper ballots.

But leaders in the state House and Senate have said they prefer computer-generated paper ballots, called ballot-marking devices, which require voters to use a touchscreen to make their selections and then insert a printed ballot into an optical scanning machine. And a government commission created by Kemp recommended ballot-marking devices this month in a report to the General Assembly.

“I favor writing it instead of having it electronic because anybody could tamper with the machines,” said Oriente Lowe, a utility locator from Warner Robins. “If someone is tampering with electronic machines, you can’t trace the evidence.”

Critics of Georgia's electronic voting machines say they could be hacked to change election results. Some voters reported that the machines flipped their votes from one candidate to another in November's election. And a lawsuit that was dismissed Friday blamed the machines for suspiciously low vote totals in the lieutenant governor's race.

“If we have to switch, I’d rather it be filled out by a pen so there’s no question about it,” said Steven Ordahl, who works in the electronics industry and lives in Alpharetta. “What do you trust and what don’t you trust? I’d say do it by pen because then it’s in your hand and there’s no doubt about it.”

Supporters of ballot-marking devices say they’d help prevent mistakes from voters using a pen and paper.

Because ballot-marking devices have touchscreens, they’re similar to the the system that Georgia voters are used to. They also can accommodate voters with vision or hearing disabilities.

“In today’s age of pen and paper, just marking it with a pen is a little bit outdated,” said Pam Glaze, who lives outside Waynesboro south of Augusta. “We’ve got to have some sort of a better check and balance” to ensure elections are accurate.

Younger voters preferred paper ballots more than older voters, according to the poll.

About 75 percent of voters between ages 18 and 29 said Georgia should move to a system with paper ballots filled in by voters. Among voters over 65, about 48 percent wanted paper ballots filled in by voters and 40 percent favored paper ballots filled in by a computer.

Kemp’s proposed budget includes $150 million for a new voting system, which would provide state legislators funding for ballot-marking devices, which are more expensive than paper ballots filled out by hand. Hand-marked paper ballots could cost roughly $30 million or more.

Over half of those surveyed also disagree with Georgia's practice of canceling the registrations of voters who don't participate in several consecutive elections. More than 1.4 million voter registrations were canceled while Kemp was secretary of state from 2010 to 2018 for a variety of reasons including inactivity, death, duplicate registrations and felony convictions.

About 57 percent said they opposed the state’s voter registration cancellation policy, and 41 percent supported it.

A bill introduced by House Minority Leader Bob Trammell, a Democrat from Luthersville, would prevent the government from purging voter registrations just because they didn't participate in a recent election. Trammell's legislation will face an uphill battle in the Republican-controlled General Assembly.

Most voters, 67 percent, said Georgia should leave its three-week early-voting period unchanged after more than half of voters cast their ballots in advance of Election Day in November. Nearly one-quarter of voters supported more time for early voting, and 6 percent said it should be reduced.

Health care

A large majority of voters said Georgia should expand Medicaid, continuing their long-term support of insuring more people.

Seventy-one percent of those surveyed said the state should expand Medicaid, which is in line with the 73 percent of Georgians who backed growing the public health insurance program in an AJC poll last January.

Almost all Democrats in the poll — 97 percent — backed Medicaid expansion. Among those who labeled themselves as independents, 73 percent supported Medicaid expansion.

Republicans generally opposed the proposal, with 49 percent saying Medicaid shouldn’t be expanded. Forty percent of Republicans favored the expansion.

Kemp said in his State of the State address that he would seek flexibility from the federal government to expand Medicaid access, but not as fully as Democrats would like.

He backs a federal waiver to the Medicaid program, as has been done in other Republican-led states, that could expand health coverage for the poor and disabled. Those kinds of waivers could include work requirements for some Medicaid recipients.

Most voters in the AJC’s poll said they support the Trump administration’s proposal to allow more states to require adults without disabilities to be working or looking for work in order to be eligible for Medicaid. About 66 percent backed a Medicaid work requirement, and 28 percent opposed it.

Raising cigarette taxes is also a popular proposal, with 73 percent of those surveyed saying they should be increased.

Georgia has one of the lowest cigarette tax rates in the nation, at 37 cents per pack.

But House Speaker David Ralston said he generally doesn't support raising taxes, including on cigarettes. Because smoking is on the decline throughout the United States, Ralston said cigarette taxes wouldn't generate a "dependable revenue stream."

Gun rights

proposal to allow gun owners to carry concealed weapons without having to obtain a permit was unpopular among those surveyed.

About 83 percent said they oppose the idea. Even among Republicans, who generally support gun rights, 75 percent said Georgia shouldn’t enact the idea.

“I grew up around guns in my home, but with all the violence today, I don’t think so many people should be carrying them,” said Robin Wolf, who is retired and lives in Roswell. “Many people don’t practice, and they could be too quick to shoot someone, and an innocent bystander can get hit.”

James McNutt, a retired Marine from Dawsonville, said gun owners should be required to have a permit from the government.

“You’ve got to have training. Just because you own a gun doesn’t mean you know how to use it,” McNutt said. “One of my combat tours (in Vietnam), in about 15 minutes my unit expended 90 percent of the ammo shooting at shadows. It took me one day to teach them discipline.”

Internet tax

An effort by rural Georgia lawmakers to impose a 4 percent tax on Netflix and other digital goods faces broad opposition from the public.

The idea would raise money to help subsidize internet construction in rural areas, where 16 percent of households lack high-speed online access. The proposal would also lower or eliminate some existing taxes charged for phone lines and cable TV.

But across political parties and geography, the AJC’s poll showed that most of those surveyed dislike the proposal. Only 28 percent supported the tax while 66 percent were against it.

Even those who live outside metro Atlanta, where revenue from a digital goods tax would be spent, said they oppose the proposal.

“Everyone can’t have a Cadillac just because the Joe Blow down the road has a Cadillac,” said Glaze, the voter who lives near Waynesboro. “We’re not all the same. Don’t give handouts to everybody.”