August 29, 2019, 2019 - Chattahoochee Hills - Dana Wicher with a sample ballot of the type used in their city elections, along with their ballot box. She is the city clerk and is in charge of elections in Chattahoochee Hills, a city that formed in 2007 and uses paper ballots as a cost-saving measure. Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com

Many cities stick with paper ballots as Georgia buys new machines

The 2,271 people eligible to vote in Chattahoochee Hills may feel like they’re stepping back in time whenever they cast a ballot for the City Council or mayor.

In much of the rest of the state, electronic voting machines are standard for each and every election. But in Chattahoochee Hills and about 70 other cities, residents vote using paper ballots. In many of those cities, the votes are even tallied by hand.

On election night in Chattahoochee Hills, residents can pile into City Hall to watch City Clerk Dana Wicher and a handful of poll workers open a locked metal ballot box and call out the names on each ballot. Like keeping score at a baseball game, they can even tally along.

As the debate rages over whether Georgia’s new touchscreen-and-printed-ballot voting system is secure, voters in cities across the state will continue to fill out their ballots with pens this November. They won’t use any modern technology during their municipal elections. State law exempts cities from having to use the uniform voting system mandated for county, state and federal elections.

“Folks like coming in and doing the paper ballots. It’s that old-town community feeling,” Wicher said. “There is some suspense. There’s probably more transparency with the paper system.”

On election night for municipal contests in Chattahoochee Hills, poll workers tally the votes by opening a metal ballot box and calling out the names on each paper ballot. Residents watch and keep track of the counts on their own. Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Most of the state’s 7 million registered voters have been using electronic voting machines each election since 2002, when they were billed as a solution to the problems of hanging chads and uncertain results in the wake of the 2000 presidential election between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore. But many cities never made the change, either because the cost was too high or because the systems they had in place worked just fine.

While paper ballots might seem antiquated to some voters, those in small and medium-size cities are accustomed to pen-and-paper voting. More than 70% of voters nationwide use some form of paper ballot, according to Verified Voting, a national election integrity organization.

Residents in six Georgia cities will even use mechanical lever machines during November’s elections. Those machines have been known to occasionally fail to record votes, and they lack the kind of paper trail provided by paper ballots. But they also avoid the risks of hacking inherent to computerized voting systems.

Kristi Ash, the elections superintendent in Loganville, said she expects this election will be the last one where residents vote on such machines. While they’re relatively reliable, she said only two people in the state know how to program the machines, and they are getting older. Residents often ask whether the city ever plans to update its technology.

Still, Ash said she’ll miss the ease of counting — it takes longer to open the machines than it does to add the ballots together — and the confidence it instills in Loganville’s roughly 8,000 registered voters.

Voters in Acworth municipal elections use a check-mark or an X to choose their candidates for mayor and City Council. This is a sample ballot provided by the city of Acworth.

“With the voting machine, there’s no doubt in somebody’s mind what they voted for,” she said. “It’s very straightforward. With a computer, there’s doubt.”

Supporters of paper ballots say they reduce the risk of election hacking.

Votes can’t be changed digitally when they’re recorded by touching a pen to a piece of paper. City election officials say they prevent ballot-box stuffing by ensuring that the number of checked-in voters matches the number of ballots cast.

Chattahoochee Hills resident Vernice Armour said she feels better with paper ballots than she does with voting machines.

“If something’s gone wrong with it, how do you even know?” she asked.

Ailleen Nakamura, a Sandy Springs voter and election integrity advocate, said she thinks paper ballots are the only solution.

Hand-marked paper ballots are the best technology we can use for safe and secure voting,” she said.

Not everyone agrees. Victoria Adair, a Chattahoochee Hills voter, said she doesn’t feel comfortable dropping her ballot in a locked box because she said the poll workers often aren’t neutral arbiters in local elections.

“I don’t really feel it’s safe and secure,” she said. “It’s harder for someone to change a computer ballot than a paper ballot.”

She has powerful company in state Sen. Jeff Mullis, a Chickamauga Republican who thought he won his first election to the state Senate, in 1998, by 23 votes. But when election officials conducted a recount, they found 151 additional paper ballots, with just six of those new votes being cast for Mullis.

“I am totally 100% against a handwritten paper ballot. It can be fraudulently done in a back room somewhere and added to the ballot box,” said Mullis, the chairman of the powerful Senate Rules Committee. “I’m glad we got the electronic machines because I think they’re very trustworthy.”

March 5, 2019 - Atlanta - Senator Jeff Mullis, sponsored SB 77, which provides protections for government statues, monuments, plaques, banners, and other commemorative symbols. The legislature was in session for the 27th day of the 2019 General Assembly. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com

Mullis won election two years later by more than 3,000 votes, and he’s been in the state Senate ever since. He voted in March in favor of Georgia’s new voting system, which is scheduled to be rolled out statewide in time for the March 24 presidential primary.

With the $107 million voting system, voters will make their choices on electronic voting machines, as they do now. Those touchscreen machines will be connected to printers that will produce a paper ballot, which voters can review before inserting into optical scanners for tabulation.

Elections superintendents in several cities that use paper ballots said they don’t have strong opinions about the new machines. But a number expressed happiness with the systems they have — in some cases, because of cost savings; in others, because of the ease of managing elections. Many will continue to use paper ballots for city elections, even once the new technology is available.

“We haven’t had a desire to change,” Acworth City Clerk Regina Russell said. “It does save on costs in terms of what the county charges us for an election.”

In Chattahoochee Hills, it cost $1,800 to run city elections in 2017; the cost to contract with Fulton County this fall would have been $6,722.

Buford Election Superintendent Kim Wolfe said she’s never given a thought to anything but paper ballots, while Pat Chapman, the deputy city administrator in Berkeley Lake, said there’s no reason to invest in new hardware when only a few hundred of the city’s 1,500 registered voters cast ballots each election.

“It may never make sense to go to any machine-counted ballot,” Chapman said.

Eric Beckman, the qualifying officer for Lake City’s elections, said it’s not cost-effective to rent machines for about 150 voters who might turn out.

“We have some people who ask us to go to the electronic machines because it makes the counting go faster,” said Beckman, who oversees elections in the Clayton County city. “It’s not cost-effective for the city to go through the purchase and training for it. It’s just a check box — you check it and that’s it.”

The speed of counting may eventually overtake the cost savings in Chattahoochee Hills, Wicher said.

After all, paper ballots can be cumbersome in small towns like hers, with just a few poll workers.

It takes until after midnight to count a few hundred votes, and as the city grows, it might be easier to hire the county to run municipal elections on voting machines, she said. This year might be the last time Chattahoochee Hills voters mark their ballots with a pen.

“It’s getting overwhelming,” Wicher said. “I trust the state’s new system. It’s probably not going to be feasible to continue doing it this way. People want those instant results these days.”

Stay on top of what’s happening in Georgia government and politics at www.ajc.com/politics.

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