Lawmakers propose switching Georgia from digital to paper ballots

Jeb Cameron with Election Systems & Software demonstrates the paper ballot voting machines at Rockdale County Board of Elections in Conyers, where a test run of the machines was conducted during November’s elections. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Jeb Cameron with Election Systems & Software demonstrates the paper ballot voting machines at Rockdale County Board of Elections in Conyers, where a test run of the machines was conducted during November’s elections. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Elections in Georgia could return to paper ballots.

A bill recently introduced in the Georgia General Assembly calls for the state to scrap its 16-year-old touch-screen voting system and replace it with a paper-based system.

Paper ballots, used by about 70 percent of the nation, are more secure than electronic machines because they can't be hacked, said state Rep. Scot Turner, the sponsor of House Bill 680.

Currently, Georgia's 27,000 touch screens leave no paper record of how people voted, making it impossible to audit elections for accuracy or to conduct verifiable recounts.

“The most secure system in the world for conducting elections is pen or pencil and a piece of paper,” said Turner, a Republican from Holly Springs. “It’s the same type of Scantron technology we’ve been using since we were kids filling out standardized tests.”

Poll worker Cathy Gray prepares the electronic machines for voting at Henry W. Grady High School in Atlanta in November. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

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It could cost about $25 million to $35 million to buy new voting equipment across the state — primarily optical scanning machines that would read paper ballots, Turner said. Gov. Nathan Deal's budget proposal for the upcoming year doesn't include funding for a new voting system.

Turner wants the new voting system in place in time for the 2020 presidential election.

Lawmakers and election officials say the need to replace Georgia’s voting system has been a long time coming.

The state’s touch screens use obsolete technology: the Windows 2000 operating system, which is no longer supported by Microsoft.

During the DefCon computer hacking conference in Las Vegas in July, tech experts exposed security vulnerabilities in the type of voting machines used in Georgia that could allow them to be compromised. Election officials in Virginia quickly decertified their touch screens based in part on the findings at the conference.

Though there's no evidence hackers have penetrated Georgia's voting machines, it's possible that without a paper trail, no one would ever know if the machines' programming had been altered.

“We don’t know what’s happening in our elections because we can’t audit them,” said Sara Henderson, the executive director for Common Cause Georgia, a government accountability organization. “We need a complete overhaul of our system. … This is an urgent situation.”

Henderson said Georgia officials should guarantee a transparent and fully vetted process before choosing an election system company. Georgia’s current voting system vendor is Election Systems & Software.

The state already conducted a test run of a paper voting system in the city of Conyers in November. Election officials said it went smoothly.

The system tested in Conyers, provided by ES&S, relied on touch-screen machines that then printed out ballots. Then voters reviewed their ballots for accuracy before feeding them into a vote scanning machine.

While voters said the system was easy to use, it’s more expensive than voting by hand and filling in bubbles next to candidates’ names. A touch screen-and-paper voting system could cost well over $100 million statewide.

Secretary of State Brian Kemp is willing to work with state legislators if they decide to switch voting systems, spokeswoman Candice Broce said.

“Our current voting equipment works well, but we need to plan for its eventual replacement,” Broce said. “However, we cannot forget the voting public as well as the hundreds of elections officials across our state who work tirelessly to ensure the integrity of our electoral process. Their voices are critically important.”

HB 680 wouldn’t rid the state of electronic voting machines entirely. Each precinct would also provide at least one touch screen that could enlarge text for voters with poor eyesight. The touch screen would then print a paper ballot.

Despite general agreement among lawmakers that Georgia should buy a new voting system, it’s unclear whether the legislation will advance in the Georgia General Assembly this year.

Legislators might be unwilling to spend more government money during an election year when they want to appear fiscally conservative.

State Rep. Scott Holcomb, a co-sponsor of HB 680, said legislators should act during this year's ongoing legislative session.

“We have an outdated and insecure voting system,” said Holcomb, an Atlanta Democrat. “The system we have right now is effectively a computer system from 2002. How many of us are using phones from 2002? How many of us are using laptops from 2002. Not many people.”

Voting system replacement proposal

  • It would prohibit the type of voting machines now used in Georgia, direct recording electronic machines
  • It would require paper ballots that can be read by automatic tabulating equipment
  • It would mandate audits of paper ballots to verify the accuracy of election results

Source: House Bill 680

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