Exclusive: First look at paper-ballot machines that Georgia is testing

The thin, long piece of paper slides slowly out the voting machine, the internal mechanism guiding it making a sound similar to a copying machine.

Printed on it are choices selected during voting, tapped seconds before on an electronic screen attached to the same machine. The piece of paper, in this case a ballot, is then carried to a second machine that electronically tabulates the votes while also dropping the paper into a locked, internal box.

"Every vote that's been cast there is a hard-copy paper record that each voter validated before it was inserted, scanned and tabulated," said Jeb S. Cameron with Election Systems and Software, a Nebraska-based voting software and election management company that will help Georgia pilot a new paper-ballot voting system in November.

That touches on one of the fiercest criticisms Georgia's current system has received: There's currently no paper record for most ballots cast in its elections.

Jeb Cameron with Election Systems and Software pulls a paper ballot from a voting machine during a demonstration Tuesday at the Rockdale County Board of Elections office in Conyers. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

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The test of the system, demonstrated exclusively Tuesday for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and WSB-TV, came as early voters in Conyers will begin Oct. 16 to use the ballots along with new electronic record, voting and tabulating machines ahead of a Nov. 7 election for mayor and two City Council seats.

If all goes as planned, it's the first time voters — excluding absentee voters — will have cast ballots on a system with a paper component since 2008. Back then, officials attached paper spools for a local election on some of the state's existing electronic voting machines but decided the process was too cumbersome to proceed.

It also sets the stage for conversations at the state Capitol about how Georgia can transition away from the aging election system it currently uses. The state last overhauled its system in 2002, at a cost of at least $54 million, when it committed to the now-familiar touch-screen electronic voting machines that millions of voters here still use today.

At the same time, it eliminated a paper trail of recorded votes — something election experts now warn against.

“Voters for a long time have been asking to be able to actually see their votes before they cast their ballots,” said Cynthia Welch, the elections supervisor for Rockdale County, which is running the Conyers election. “Now they will actually receive a printed ballot that will show their selections.”

Of the 8,000 voters in Conyers, Welch said she is expecting a turnout of about 11 percent to 12 percent — any voter who casts a ballot in the local election, starting with early voting and running through Election Day, can vote on the new machines.

The company is paying for the machines’ use in the pilot. There’s no guarantee the pilot will be expanded after this year, but Welch and others said it was hard to imagine the state wouldn’t do so.

Officials estimate a cost to implement a similar new system statewide could exceed $100 million and would need sign-off from the governor and state lawmakers. There are no plans currently to make that financial request next year, meaning it would be at least 2019 before it is considered.

That makes any switch-out of the state’s voting system a three- to four-year proposition, assuming the Secretary of State’s Office won approval to move forward.

The effort comes, however, as Georgia is under increasing pressure to update its system, which it has maintained in the face of both technological advances and heightened concerned over systemic flaws that could be exploited if the system was ever breached.

It's a fear that has escalated with regular news reports about widespread alleged attempts by Russian hackers to meddle in the 2016 presidential election.

To make matters worse in Georgia, cybersecurity researchers twice since last year accessed highly sensitive documents through a misconfigured server at Kennesaw State University’s Center for Election Systems, an agency that for the past 15 years has helped run elections across the state.

The state has since announced it will phase out working with the elections center over the next year, and it has begun a forensic review of the current system.