Backup paper ballot system for Georgia will be tested in Cobb County

People wait in a long line to vote Saturday at the Cobb County Board of Elections and Registration office in Marietta, GA October 27, 2018. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

People wait in a long line to vote Saturday at the Cobb County Board of Elections and Registration office in Marietta, GA October 27, 2018. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Voters will bubble in paper ballots during Cobb County elections in November, a test run of hand-marked paper ballot voting that could be implemented statewide if Georgia’s new voting system isn’t ready in time for the March 24 presidential primary.

The hand-marked paper ballot test was ordered by U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg, who required elections officials to develop a contingency plan as an alternative to the state's $107 million voting method that combines touchscreens and printers to create paper ballots.

The paper ballot trial will be conducted in city council and mayoral elections in four cities: Austell, Kennesaw, Powder Springs and Smyrna. There are no countywide elections on the Nov. 5 ballot.

Cobb Elections Director Janine Eveler said Thursday that the county volunteered for the test run so it can quickly begin learning how to use the state’s new equipment from Dominion Voting Systems. During the hand-marked paper ballot pilot, the county will use Dominion’s optical scanning machines and election management servers, but not the touchscreens voters would use to choose their candidates.

Instead, the county will pre-print more than 73,000 paper ballots — one per registered voter — that will be filled out in old voting booths and then inserted into the optical scanners for tabulation.

“The sooner we could get the paper record in our elections, the better,” Eveler said. “I’m probably crazy, but I wanted to get into this new system. We wanted to be part of the front end.”

Eveler prefers the state’s new voting system over hand-marked paper ballots, saying she’s concerned about the logistics and security of delivering, transporting and securing so many paper ballots.

The state’s incoming voting system doesn’t print ballots until after voters make their choices on touchscreens. Then voters will be able to review ballots and insert them into scanners, which will deposit them into locked ballot boxes.

"Our office is working in tandem with Dominion in order to ensure that every county has the tools they need to conduct fair and accurate elections," Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said. "I am confident that the entire state will have the new paper-based voting system in time for the March 24, 2020, presidential preference primary."

Totenberg ruled last month that Georgia must switch to paper ballots next year, but she decided it would be too disruptive to mandate paper ballots for this fall's elections.

Georgia's 17-year-old electronic voting system lacks a paper ballot record that could be checked during recounts and audits.

Opponents of the Dominion system say computer-generated paper ballots remain vulnerable to hacking or tampering because many voters won't check their ballots for accuracy. In a close election, it wouldn't take many incorrect and unverified ballots to alter the outcome.

But Eveler said she doesn't see a difference in the security of hand-marked paper ballots and printed-out paper ballots. Both will be tabulated using optical scanners and election computers.

“There’s a digital record of the ballot, and they both have an auditable text of the ballot we can test at the back end,” Eveler said.

During the hand-marked paper ballot test, Dominion’s touchscreens will also be available in every precinct to accommodate voters with disabilities, Eveler said. Touchscreens can enlarge ballot text and play audio to help voters make their choices.