Georgia panel backs new voting machines over hand-marked paper ballots

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A panel formed by Gov.-elect Brian Kemp voted Thursday to replace Georgia’s electronic voting machines with a computerized system that prints paper ballots, despite opposition from a crowd of voters who said paper ballots filled out by hand are more secure and less expensive.

The endorsement of ballot printers over hand-marked paper ballots will carry weight with the Georgia General Assembly when it considers buying a new statewide voting system during this year's legislative session, which begins Monday.

The Secure, Accessible & Fair Elections (SAFE) Commission voted 13-3 to recommend a voting system with touchscreens and printers, called ballot-marking devices, that would cost taxpayers well over $100 million. A system using paper ballots bubbled in with a pen would cost around $30 million.

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The vote came the same week Kemp announced he was hiring former state Rep. Chuck Harper, a lobbyist for the state's current election vendor, Election Systems & Software, as his deputy chief of staff. The company sells the same kind of voting system that the commission recommended.

Georgia's 16-year-old electronic voting system has come under fire from critics who say it could be hacked, and there's no way to check election results for accuracy without a paper backup. Some voters reported that the machines flipped their votes from one candidate to another in November's election, and a lawsuit blames the machines for suspiciously low vote totals in the lieutenant governor's race.

Except for election officials and lobbyists, every voter who made public comments Thursday supported hand-marked paper ballots. County election supervisors backed ballot-marking devices, saying they're similar to the touchscreens that voters are accustomed to.

Voters told the SAFE Commission that ballot-marking devices wouldn’t be much of an improvement over the state’s current voting machines. Ballot-marking devices could still be hacked, they said, and paper printouts don’t reflect voters’ choices as well as hand-marked ballots.

“Why don’t you pick the most trustworthy and economic voting system: hand-marked paper ballots?” asked Jacqueline Elsner, an Athens-Clarke County voter.

But members of the commission said ballot-marking devices will produce a paper record that can be used for audits and recounts, helping ensure election integrity.

“Ballot-marking devices with verifiable paper ballots ensure that a voter’s selection in each contest is captured in a manner that will be accurately counted,” according to the SAFE Commission’s report. “The Commission believes that moving from one form of touchscreen voting to another will be an easier transition for Georgia voters than it would be to move to hand-marked paper ballots.”

Georgia is one of four states nationwide that relies entirely on electronic voting machines that lack a verifiable paper ballot. About 70 percent of voters across the United States use paper ballots, according to Verified Voting, a national election integrity organization.

Kemp, a Republican, created the SAFE Commission last summer when he was secretary of state, an effort to prepare for the General Assembly’s upcoming decision on a new statewide voting system. The commission is made up of legislators, election officials, political party representatives and voters.

The three dissenting votes Thursday came from the commission's two Democratic Party legislators, state Rep. James Beverly and state Sen. Lester Jackson, as well as its only cybersecurity expert, Georgia Tech professor Wenke Lee.

Hand-marked paper ballots are more secure because they don’t rely on machines to print them, and voters don’t always review their printed ballots to ensure accuracy, Lee said.

“Some of the election officials say that paper ballots are not perfect because a voter can make mistakes. But the point is that those mistakes are individual mistakes, not widespread, large-scale mistakes,” Lee said. “When you use a ballot-marking device, if that device has a malfunction or has been hacked, then you’re going to affect every single vote, so that would be a large-scale catastrophic error. We should always use the solution that’s the most secure rather than the most convenient.”

Incoming Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a member of the commission who voted for ballot-marking devices, said he listened to county election officials with experience in election security and administration.

“If you look at just age alone, we need to upgrade,” said Raffensperger, a Republican. “When the counties weighed in, they thought about their costs … and also the ease of voting.”

The Democratic Party of Georgia opposed the SAFE Commission’s vote.

Rebecca DeHart, the executive director for the Democratic Party of Georgia, said the SAFE Commission should have delayed making a recommendation because of Kemp’s hiring of Harper. She said that move created a conflict of interest.

Members of the SAFE Commission didn’t address her concern before voting on its proposal for a new voting system.

The commission's recommendations aren't binding, but they will be a guide for state legislators. Several Democratic legislators, including House Minority Leader Bob Trammell, said they will insist on hand-marked paper ballots when bills are debated.

Voters said that after fears of Russian hacking and inaccurate results, state lawmakers should choose the most reliable and secure voting system.

“When citizens lose confidence and faith in our elections, when we the people doubt that our vote is accurately recorded and counted, and when we believe that people are disenfranchised, our very democracy and indeed our country is grievously wounded,” said Regina Smith of Athens. “The threats and the realities of hacking and electronic vote manipulation are real.”

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