2/21/19 - Atlanta - The House Governmental Affairs Committee passed House Bill 316, 13-6, to change the state's voting system. The bill was sponsored by Rep. Barry Fleming. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Bill to buy new Georgia voting machines clears committees

A bill to switch Georgia’s voting system to computer-printed paper ballots hurtled through the state House on Thursday, clearing its first committees after state legislators listened to two days of intense public comments.

The House Governmental Affairs Committee voted 13-6 to pass the bill, which would replace Georgia’s 27,000 electronic voting machines. The vote came about six hours after a subcommittee also approved the legislation, setting it up for a vote in the full state House, possibly as soon as next week.

Majority Republicans want to buy a voting system that’s familiar to Georgia voters, with touchscreens along with the added component of paper ballot printers. Then voters could review their paper ballots before inserting them into scanning machines. Gov. Brian Kemp’s budget includes $150 million for a new statewide voting system.

Democratic lawmakers opposed the measure, House Bill 316, saying paper ballots bubbled in with a pen would be safer from tampering.

State lawmakers are under pressure from voters and federal courts to acquire a more trustworthy and secure voting system this year. Cybersecurity experts say Georgia’s 17-year-old electronic voting machines could be hacked, with wrongdoers leaving no trace that they had rigged the election.

The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Barry Fleming, said the legislation strengthens democracy and increases confidence in election results.

“We would now introduce to Georgia voting on paper ballots,” said Fleming, a Republican from Harlem. “You would be able to look at that piece of paper and confirm that your choices are correct.”

House Minority Leader Bob Trammell, a Democrat from Luthersville, said he trusts tech experts who say switching Georgia to another computerized election system would be a mistake.

“It’s unequivocally clear that cybersecurity experts have expressed concerns about the ballot-marking devices,” Trammell said. “It comes down to whether you think the opinion of election officials ... is more important than the issue of credentialed experts in the field talking about a material risk to the voting process.”

During about seven hours of public comments this week, voters opposing the new touchscreen-and-paper system said it could be just as vulnerable as the state’s current system of direct-recording electronic voting machines, or DREs. They said voters wouldn’t necessarily catch errors on printed ballots, and voting information could be encoded in bar codes that humans wouldn’t be able to verify. They prefer paper ballots bubbled in with a pen.

“The only difference between DREs and ballot-marking devices is paper which gives voters the illusion of verifiability,” Susan McWethy of Decatur said during a hearing Wednesday.

Election officials dismiss those fears. They say they’re confident in their security protocols, and they haven’t seen evidence of interference.

2/20/19 - Atlanta - Richard DeMillo, a Georgia Tech computing professor, spoke about voting machine hacking during public comment. The Governmental Affairs Elections Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Alan Powell, held its second day of hearings on House Bill 316, which would change the state’s voting system. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“We’re dedicated to making sure as election officials that there’s no tampering with the system,” said Rockdale County Elections Supervisor Cynthia Willingham. “Voters have said they like electronic voting, but they like a piece of paper in their hand.”

If the voting machine legislation, House Bill 316, becomes law, Georgia election officials would seek competitive bids from voting system companies.

Then, voters could test the ballot-marking devices during municipal elections this November before statewide implementation in time for the 2020 presidential primary election.

State legislators will next consider the bill in the House Rules Committee, which could schedule it for a vote in the full House. If approved, the legislation would then move to the state Senate.

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