State Rep. Barry Fleming, a Republican from Harlem, answers a question about House Bill 316, which would switch Georgia to a voting system that combines touchscreens with paper ballots on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019. BOB ANDRES / bandres@ajc.com

Georgia House passes bill for new voting machines with paper ballots

New voting machines that print paper ballots would soon be installed statewide in Georgia, according to a bill approved by the state House on Tuesday.

The House voted 101-72 on a bill to replace the state’s 27,000 electronic voting machines with a $150 million voting system that uses touchscreens, printers and optical scanners. The legislation now advances to the state Senate.

Voters would pick their candidates on touchscreens, which are attached to printers that would print ballots for voters to review for accuracy. Then they’d insert their ballots into separate scanning machines for tabulation.

Georgia would become the only state in the country to use this kind of voting equipment, called ballot-marking devices, in every precinct. Some jurisdictions in 24 states use similar touchscreen-and-paper voting systems, often to assist voters with disabilities.

The vote was largely split along party lines. Republicans touted the accuracy of touchscreen voting machines, but Democrats said paper ballots bubbled in with pens would be more secure from hacking or tampering.

Republicans and most election officials say touchscreens are familiar to voters and create a paper ballot that could be used to check the accuracy of electronically tabulated results. The legislation calls for audits of election results based on paper ballots.

“We can put our voters first in Georgia and bring us into the 21st century,” said state Rep. Barry Fleming, a Republican from Harlem. “House Bill 316 will bring our state to the forefront of election technology. It builds on the successes of our old system and incorporates the best practices of the modern day.”

2/26/19 - Atlanta - Rep. Jasmine Clark, D - Tucker, spoke against the bill. The Georgia House passed a bill Tuesday to buy a new $150 million election system that includes a paper ballot printed with a ballot marking device. But opponents to the bill, including many Democrats, say it would still leave Georgia's elections vulnerable to hacking and tampering. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Democrats opposed switching from one computer-based voting technology to another, citing cybersecurity experts who say paper ballots are the more trustworthy system.

They’re concerned that computer-printed ballots would encode votes in bar codes that are readable by machines but unverifiable by humans.

“Bar codes are changeable and hackable, and the voter could not be sure that what was on the summary was actually what was counted,” said state Rep. Jasmine Clark, a Democrat from Tucker. “We must restore trust by showing Georgians … their vote is counted correctly and our elections are meaningfully audited.”

Lawmakers quickly pushed the bill through the state House, where it cleared both a subcommittee and committee Thursday after seven hours of public comments earlier in the week. Then the measure passed the full House on Tuesday, seven legislative business days after it was introduced.

The state’s elected leaders, including Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, want a new voting system in place before the 2020 presidential primary election. A panel Kemp appointed last year when he was secretary of state recommended a voting system using ballot-marking devices to replace the state’s 17-year-old direct-recording electronic voting machines.

“The best solution for Georgia to make sure that we really captured voter intent was a ballot-marking device,” Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said. “My goal as secretary of state is to make sure we get elections right.”

2/26/19 - Atlanta - Rep. Barry Fleming (left), R - Harlem, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, and House Speaker David Ralston answer questions after the bill's passage. The Georgia House passed a bill Tuesday to buy a new $150 million election system that includes a paper ballot printed with a ballot marking device. But opponents to the bill, including many Democrats, say it would still leave Georgia's elections vulnerable to hacking and tampering. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

If the voting machine legislation becomes law, Georgia election officials would seek competitive bids from voting system companies and then test ballot-marking devices during municipal elections this November.

Democrats said bubbled-in paper ballots would be safer and less expensive than ballot-marking devices, a point disputed by Raffensperger’s office.

State Rep. James Beverly, a Democrat from Macon, said the less technological solution would cost about $30 million, much less than the $150 million estimate for ballot-marking devices. Raffensperger’s office emailed a press release Tuesday morning showing that paper ballot printing costs would exceed $164 million over 10 years, but that analysis excluded a comparison with ongoing costs of ballot-marking devices or potential savings from on-demand ballot printers.

“I like to call those ballot money devices,” Beverly said. “It’s a honey pot. It’s a way to incentivize vendors to push the money down the road.”

The bill also would make many other changes to Georgia’s elections.

It would give inactive voters more time and notification before their registrations are canceled, enroll Georgia in a 25-state collaboration to track voters who move or die, limit rejections of absentee ballots because of minor discrepancies, prohibit changes in polling places 60 days before an election, and lift restrictions on assistance to voters who need help casting their ballots.

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