State Rep. Ed Rynders, the chairman of the House Governmental Affairs Committee, calls for a vote Wednesday on Senate Bill 403. The committee endorsed the legislation, which would replace Georgia’s voting machines. The bill would allow for paper ballots to be used for auditing election results. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Bill to replace Georgia’s electronic voting machines passes committee

Georgia might have a new voting system with paper ballots in time for the 2020 presidential election, according to a bill that cleared the House Governmental Affairs Committee on Wednesday.

The legislation, Senate Bill 403, would replace the state’s 16-year-old electronic voting machines with a system that creates a paper backup to ensure accuracy.

“We want to have paper ballots that deliver for voters more confidence,” said state Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth. “The public recognizes that the best-in-class technology for voting is a combination of technology with paper so that you have a verifiable, recountable, physically retallyable ballot.”

The legislation is on track for a vote in the full House of Representatives after the committee approved it on a voice vote. If it passes there, it would return to the Senate for further consideration.

Georgia is one of five states that rely entirely on direct-recording electronic voting machines without a paper trail. About 70 percent of the nation uses paper ballots.

Republican state Sen. Bruce Thompson of White, left, joins state Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, while he presents Thompson’s bill, Senate Bill 403, to the House Governmental Affairs Committee. The bill to replace Georgia’s voting machines passed in committee Wednesday, setting up final votes of the full House and Senate. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The bill would require Georgia to stop using electronic voting machines, and it would be up to elected officials to decide next year which voting system to replace it with.

Options include pen-and-paper ballots and touch-screen machines that would print ballots for voters to review. Then voters would feed their paper ballots into tabulation machines.

Opponents of the legislation prefer pen-and-paper ballots, saying touch screens are vulnerable to tampering because they use bar codes for tabulation. Voters wouldn’t be able to tell whether the bar codes matched the candidates they chose, which would also be printed on the ballot.

“The bar code machines can be hacked just like the current ones,” Betsy Shackelford of Decatur said after the committee vote. “Hand-marked paper is best.”

But supporters of touch-screen voting systems, called electronic ballot markers, say they’re safe and easy to use.

The touch screens, which were tested in a Conyers election in November, are similar to the state’s electronic system, and they would limit the possibility of voters bubbling in their ballots incorrectly, Setzler said.

The bill calls for Georgia’s newly elected secretary of state to pick which system to use next year following a competitive bidding process.

Then the Georgia General Assembly would have to vote on whether to pay for the voting system, which could cost anywhere from $35 million to well over $100 million, depending on the system selected.

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