Dwayne Broxton, left, a regional sales director for Hart InterCivic, demonstrates his company’s voting machines to lawmakers on the second day of this year’s General Assembly session. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Capitol Recap: Estimates for Georgia voting system spur questions

Reliability and accuracy are the kinds of things you’re looking for when you’re planning to put down $150 million on a new election system.

Two conservative groups, however, are finding problems in those areas when it comes to a report by Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger on how much it will cost the state to replace its 27,000 electronic voting machines.

“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 groups, the National Election Defense Coalition and FreedomWorks, said in a letter to state Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick, R-Marietta, the chairwoman of her chamber’s Ethics Committee.

Raffensperger, through a spokeswoman, is disputing the groups’ claim.

At the heart of the conflict is House Bill 316, which would scrap Georgia’s voting machines in favor of a touchscreen system that would print ballots instead of requiring voters to mark them by hand with a pen or pencil. Supporters of the touchscreen system, called ballot-marking devices, say it’s more familiar to Georgia voters who currently cast ballots on touchscreen. They also say hand-marked ballots pose the possibility of stray marks producing ambiguous results.

Raffensperger backs ballot-marking devices, although others say they could be hacked, making hand-marked ballots the more secure choice. They would include Georgia Tech professor Wenke Lee, the only cybersecurity expert on the Secure, Accessible & Fair Elections Commission, or SAFE Commission, that now-Gov. Brian Kemp created as secretary of state to study what kind of election system the state should buy.

Another point of argument is the cost of each system. Generally, estimates for the ballot-marking devices have placed the price tag at $150 million, and Kemp set aside that much in his budget proposal for a new election system. The projected cost of using hand-marked ballots has generally fallen in the neighborhood of $30 million.

Raffensperger, however, put out a report that questions those numbers.

The two conservative groups noted Raffensperger’s figures in their letter to Kirkpatrick.

“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,” they wrote. “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.”

They added, “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 … buying a Bentley and then trying to insist the Bentley is cheaper.”

This isn’t the only area where Raffensperger has taken some heat about the voting machines.

In an interview with Johnny Kauffman of WABE (90.1 FM), Raffensperger said opponents concerned about the security of the ballot-marking devices, such as Lee noted above, “are in the minority” and “out of the mainstream.”

To back it up, Raffensperger cited a poll conducted by Landmark Communications, a political consulting firm. Landmark’s poll found that 79 percent preferred “a touch screen electronic voting machine with a verifiable printed ballot” over “a paper-only ballot marked by pencil.”

That appears to be in conflict with an Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll in January that found 55 percent of Georgians favor “paper ballots filled in by voters.” It showed only 35 percent favored “paper ballots printed by computer.”

Raffensperger and Landmark have close ties. The firm was the primary consultant in Raffensperger’s campaign last year. And a former Landmark vice president, Jordan Fuchs, is now Raffensperger’s deputy secretary.

A threat and a request: Georgia U.S. Sen. David Perdue picked a bad time to try drawing attention to something he sees as a peril for the the country.

Perdue introduced a resolution declaring the country’s $22 trillion debt a threat to national security.

But he did it the same day most television cameras were pointed at the U.S. House for its vote to overturn President Donald Trump’s declaration of a national emergency so he could build a wall on the southwest border.

Perdue also did it the same day he and U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson were asking for money. Specifically, they wanted $13 billion as part of a spending bill aimed at helping victims of Hurricane Michael and other recent natural disasters.

It’s unclear whether any of that spending would be offset by budget cuts elsewhere, so Perdue’s request poses the possibility of adding to the nation’s deficit and ultimately the debt.

On the matter of storm recovery, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell offered news that could cheer Perdue and Isakson.

McConnell said the Senate could move soon on disaster funding.

“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 are offering some enticements affecting two heavily Democratic areas. They include recovery funding in response to last year’s California wildfires, as well as roughly $600 million in nutritional assistance for Puerto Rico.

Backing bail: The Atlanta City Council took a big step last year when it voted to abandon a cash bail system for those charged with minor violations.

State legislation now aims to walk that back.

It appears that House Bill 340, authored by state Rep. Micah Gravley, R-Douglasville, would:

  • Empower judges in any court to include “violations of local ordinances” in written guidelines for bail amounts required for those charged with specific crimes.
  • Bar anyone charged with a felony from being released on his or her own recognizance “for any reason.”
  • Not allow those charged to be released from jail before appearing in front of a judge.

The Atlanta ordinance gives the city’s Detention Center the authority to release on their own recognizance people with pending nonviolent misdemeanor charges or city ordinance violations.

Supporters of the ordinance say that scheduling a bail appearance is among the leading reasons that individuals remain in detention.

Nathan Deal won widespread praise during his time as governor for his work overhauling the state's criminal justice system, directing nonviolent offenders away from prisons and into programs to help them.

But when Kemp was campaigning for governor, he took a harder line.

While none of Kemp’s floor leaders have signed on to HB 340, it has plenty of oomph behind it. Gravley is vice chairman of the House Republican caucus, and the legislation’s No. 2 sponsor is House Majority Leader Jon Burns.

Its opponents include the Southern Center for Human Rights, the Georgia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and Kemp’s Democratic opponent in the governor’s race, Stacey Abrams.

On Twitter, she called the bill “a step in the wrong direction, a clear indication that our state is moving backward on criminal justice reform.”

“It is wrong,” Abrams added, “for people charged with nonviolent offenses to sit in jail simply because they cannot afford bail.”

Targeting trafficking: Kemp has appointed his wife, Marty, to be a co-chairwoman of a panel that would seeks ways to combat sex trafficking.

Other members are state House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, the other co-chairwoman, and newly named GBI Director Vic Reynolds.

Kemp, the creator of the SAFE Commission, shows he still has a knack for acronyms. This new group is called the Georgians for Refuge, Action, Compassion and Education Commission, but you can call it the GRACE Commission.

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