Georgia officials fight Athens’ decision to scrap voting touchscreens

The State Election Board is challenging Athens-Clarke County’s decision to reject Georgia’s new statewide voting system.

The state board called an emergency hearing for Wednesday on whether the Athens elections board broke several state laws when it voted 3-2 last week to switch to paper ballots filled out by hand instead of by machine.

The State Election Board has the power under state law to order a $5,000 fine against Athens' government for each violation of Georgia laws requiring a uniform statewide voting system. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger is the chairman of the State Election Board.

The Athens election board abandoned the state's new voting touchscreens because of concerns that the large, brightly lit screens allow people to see voters' choices from 30 feet away. The board cited state laws that allow for paper ballots when use of voting equipment is "impossible or impracticable."

But the secretary of state’s office says the touchscreens can be positioned so they face walls and protect voters’ privacy.

An attorney for Athens-Clarke County warned board members that their decision to mothball the new machines would be difficult to defend. It's the only county in the state to ditch the touchscreen voting system.

A judge in South Georgia ruled against an effort to force a switch to hand-marked paper ballots because of privacy concerns. Sumter County Superior Court Chief Judge R. Rucker Smith denied an emergency motion last month to require paper ballots filled out by hand.

Georgia's $104 million voting system is already in use for early voting in advance of the March 24 presidential primary.

In-person voters make their choices on touchscreens that are connected to printers, which create paper ballots. Then voters can review their selections before inserting their ballots into a scanning machine.

Any Georgia voter can vote by mail if they request an absentee ballot and return it to the county election office.