Battles over election integrity that helped define Georgia's race for governor will play out at the Capitol this year, when state legislators plan to replace the state's 27,000 electronic voting machines and review voting access laws.
The multimillion-dollar purchase of a more secure statewide voting system is a priority for this year's legislative session, which starts Monday. Legislators generally agree that the state should start using paper ballots to replace the all-digital touchscreen system in place since 2002, but they strongly differ over what kind of paper-based system to buy.
Intense debates over voter disenfranchisement are also certain to arise. A bill has already been filed to curb mass voter registration cancellations, and other measures could address ballot cancellations, voting hours, early voting times, precinct closures and district boundaries.
But the state's planned switch to paper ballots will command lawmakers' attention after a federal judge wrote in a ruling in the fall that state election officials "had buried their heads in the sand" about the risk that the state's voting system could be hacked.
Then on Election Day in November, some voters reported that the machines flipped their votes from one candidate to another, and a lawsuit blamed the voting machines for suspiciously low vote totals in the lieutenant governor's race.
Now, the Georgia General Assembly will have to pick between paper ballots bubbled in by hand and paper ballots filled in by a computer.
Election integrity groups are pushing hard for hand-marked paper ballots, but some election officials and voting companies prefer the more tech-driven system, called ballot-marking devices. Most companies vying to win the state’s voting system contract — including the state’s current election vendor, Election Systems & Software — are promoting the more expensive option, ballot-marking devices, but they also provide hand-marked paper ballots.
State Rep. Barry Fleming, a co-chairman of a state government group evaluating voting systems, said paper ballots could be used to double-check machine counts for accuracy. But he said paper ballots need to be combined with other election security measures to prevent fraud.
“We had paper ballots for hundreds of years, and cheating stories are rampant,” said Fleming, a Republican from Harlem. “Unfortunately, when you get dishonest people involved, they’re going to find ways to cheat. You just try to limit it as much as possible. The idea that a pure paper ballot is the safest way to vote is something that people have different opinions about.”
The group, called the Secure, Accessible & Fair Elections (SAFE) Commission, could vote on recommendations for Georgia's next voting system during a meeting Thursday.
Advocacy organizations seeking accurate elections want hand-marked paper ballots, which voters would complete by filling in bubbles next to candidates’ names, then feed their ballots into an optical scanning machine.
Hand-marked paper ballots would preserve voters' intent and safeguard elections, said Marian Schneider, the president of Verified Voting, a Philadelphia-based organization that supports accurate and verifiable elections.
“The narrative of rigged elections is so destructive to democracy,” Schneider said. “With a paper ballot, you have an opportunity to ensure that the vote recorded by the software is accurate.”
Verified Voting sent a letter last week urging members of the SAFE Commission to endorse hand-marked paper ballots, saying they're less vulnerable to software errors and hacking than ballot-marking devices.
Hand-marked paper ballots are also less expensive than the more computerized alternative, costing the state government roughly $30 million. By comparison, it would cost Georgia taxpayers well over $100 million for ballot-marking devices statewide.
About 70 percent of voters across the nation already use a paper ballot, according to Verified Voting. Georgia is one of the last four states that relies entirely on electronic voting machines without a verifiable paper trail, along with Delaware, Louisiana and South Carolina.
Backers of ballot-marking devices say they provide a paper record while also making voting easy and accessible.
Like Georgia’s current direct-recording electronic voting machines, voters would make their choices on touchscreens, which would then print a paper ballot displaying their selections. Voters could then review their ballots before inserting them into an optical scanning machine.
“To me, it’s harder to manipulate than a hand-marked ballot system,” Bartow County Elections Supervisor Joseph Kirk said. “Anyone can stuff a ballot box, but getting into a ballot-marking device takes a certain degree of sophistication.”
Those devices can enlarge text and provide audio for voters with disabilities, he said. They also avoid the kind of human errors associated with hand-marked paper ballots, such as circling a candidate’s name instead of bubbling in an oval or inadvertently skipping races.
Almost every voter who has provided public comments to the SAFE Commission supports hand-marked paper ballots.
Those voters said they’re suspicious of ballot-marking devices because they often print ballots with bar codes that contain votes in a computer-readable format. Because voters can’t read bar codes, they say they have no way of knowing whether the bar codes accurately represent their choices.
"How can we restore faith in elections if there's unreadable stuff on your ballot?" asked Margaret Arnett, who lives in Decatur and attended a demonstration of voting systems last week. "Paper ballots are more secure, and they're not hackable, unlike bar codes. Voting should not be this hard. It shouldn't be this expensive either."
State Rep. Scott Holcomb said he plans to introduce a bill that would move Georgia to hand-marked paper ballots as its primary voting system, with ballot-marking devices available in each polling place for those with disabilities.
“The question that those who favor ballot-marking devices have to answer is, why should the state pay more for a system that’s less secure? That’s the $100 million question,” said Holcomb, a Democrat from Atlanta. “The issues we have with our direct-recording electronic system carry over to a ballot-marking device system. They can still be hacked.”
The fight over elections and voting is sure to be contentious during this year's legislative session, as it was last year, when bills to change the state's voting system failed to pass.
Legislators said they have to act quickly this year if they want to get a new statewide voting system in place in time for Georgia’s presidential primary in March 2020. There’s also a sense of urgency to make a legislative decision before federal judges intervene through ongoing lawsuits over the state’s electronic voting system.
One of those lawsuits was filed by allies of Democrat Stacey Abrams, who lost the race for governor to Republican Brian Kemp. The lawsuit by an Abrams-affiliated group called Fair Fight Action asks a federal judge to overturn state laws that purged voter registrations, canceled ballots and created obstacles to voting.
The group wants some form of paper ballots and will also oppose gerrymandering and changes to voting precinct locations and hours.
“We will leverage our grassroots power to fight against any dangerous legislation that disenfranchises a single eligible voter,” said Lauren Groh-Wargo, the CEO of Fair Fight Action and Abram’s former campaign manager. “Kemp, beware: We are watching, and we will make sure Georgians get a fair fight.”
When Georgia’s General Assembly launches its 2019 session Jan. 14, it will deal with a wide range of legislation.
During the runup, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will explore a number of issues that will confront legislators, including today’s story about voting.
Other topics that have or will be covered include the state budget, health care, social and cultural measures, and education.
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