Republican candidates for Georgia Secretary of State debate at Lassiter High School in Marietta, Georgia, on Monday, April 9, 2018. (REANN HUBER/REANN.HUBER@AJC.COM)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

New Georgia voting system divides candidates for secretary of state

When voters choose Georgia’s next secretary of state, they’ll also play a role in replacing the state’s electronic voting machines.

Whoever wins the election for secretary of state will likely be responsible for overseeing the state’s purchase and implementation of a new voting method.

The seven candidates in the May 22 primary election disagree on what type of voting system Georgia will be safest and easiest to use. Options include pen-and-paper or touchscreens-plus-paper.

Democratic candidates for secretary of state John Barrow and Dee Dawkins-Haigler participate in a debate during a May 3 taping of the Atlanta Press Club at the Georgia Public Broadcasting studio in Atlanta. Another Democratic candidate, RJ Hadley, didn’t attend the debate. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The Republican Party primary features four candidates — three state legislators and a former mayor. On the Democratic Party side, a former congressman, a former state legislator and a county tax official are seeking the nomination. The winners of the primaries will meet in the general election Nov. 6.

Every candidate says Georgia needs a more secure election method that isn’t vulnerable to hacking and can restore voters’ trust. Georgia’s current direct-recording electronic voting machines don’t produce an independent paper record that could be used to check the accuracy of elections during recounts and audits.

Republican state Sen. Josh McKoon, who recently ran a campaign ad in which he takes a baseball bat to an old Georgia voting machine, said he prefers touchscreens that print paper ballots for voters to review for accuracy.

An advantage of touchscreens over pen-and-paper ballots is they prevent voters from missing races or accidentally voting in the same race twice, which would spoil their ballots, he said.

“We need to have technology that makes it as accessible as possible for voters and increases voter confidence,” said McKoon, a Republican from Columbus. “Having a paper ballot that can be read and verified by the voter is essential.”

Early voting begins Monday for Georgia's primary elections.

Other candidates said pen-and-paper ballots are superior because there’s less chance votes could be changed through hacking. Paper ballots would also come with shorter lines and cost much less than touchscreens.

A primarily paper-based system could cost $35 million or more, while a touchscreen-and-paper system could cost well over $100 million. The Georgia General Assembly would have to approve spending for a voting system.

Democrat John Barrow, who served in Congress for 10 years, said hand-marked paper ballots create an original record that can’t be tampered with. With paper ballots, voters would fill in bubbles next to their choices and then feed their ballots into an optical scanning machine.

Republican candidates in Georgia’s secretary of state race debate April 9 at Lassiter High School in Marietta. (REANN HUBER/REANN.HUBER@AJC.COM)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“It’s far and away the clearest evidence of how the voters intended to cast their votes, and the voters can see their ballot as they have marked it before it’s cast,” said Barrow, who was defeated in his bid for re-election to Congress by Rick Allen in 2014.

The candidates favoring the touchscreen systems, called ballot marking devices, are McKoon; state Rep. Brad Raffensperger, R-Johns Creek; and RJ Hadley, a Democrat and chief deputy tax commissioner for Rockdale County.

Those seeking a paper-and-pen voting system are Barrow and state Rep. Buzz Brockway, R-Lawrenceville.

The two remaining candidates prefer a hybrid voting system in which voters would be handed blank paper ballots at their precincts and then feed them into a touchscreen machine, which would print their choices. Those candidates are former Alpharetta Mayor David Bell Isle and former state Rep. Dee Dawkins-Haigler, D-Lithonia.

Brockway, who runs a business with his wife selling products to event and party rental stores, said Georgia should follow the lead of the rest of the country, where about 70 percent of voters already use paper ballots.

“Hand-marked ballots with post-election audits offer us a way to restore confidence and trust in the elections process,” said Brockway, who has been endorsed by 70 of his colleagues in the Georgia House of Representatives.

Raffensperger, the owner of an engineering design firm, said a touchscreen-and-paper system would be familiar to voters because it’s similar to the state’s current electronic voting machines, which have been in use since 2002. The state tested that kind of ballot marking device and received positive reviews from voters and election officials after a test run in a Conyers election in November.

“We need a secure technology with a verifiable paper trail,” Raffensperger said. “It gives the voters comfort. They could verify that this isn’t some kind of black box” that leaves no evidence of their votes.

The two candidates who want voters to insert a blank paper ballot into a touchscreen machine say that method would assure them of the accuracy of election results.

“People need to see the full ballot in their hand before even trying to go and cast a ballot,” said Dawkins-Haigler, a minister and political consultant. “Nobody trusts the system anymore.”

Belle Isle, who was Alpharetta’s mayor for the past five years, said moving to a paper-and-pen system statewide would be an “overreaction.”

“The goal is to create better voter security and better voter confidence,” Belle Isle said. “The solution to having better voter confidence is going to involve both technology and paper.”

Georgia Democratic candidates for Secretary of State John Barrow, left, and Dee Dawkins-Haigler, right, participate in a debate during a taping of the Atlanta Press Club at the Georgia Public Broadcasting studio in Atlanta, Thursday, May 3, 2018. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

All the candidates oppose the kind of touchscreen system that would rely on a bar code to tabulate votes, which was debated during this year’s legislative session. Any touchscreen voting system shouldn’t use bar codes, they said.

“We know the machines we have are outdated and in need of replacement,” said Hadley, the Rockdale tax official. “I’d like to see a system that will just scan the vote you made” without a bar code.

The winners of the Republican and Democratic primaries will face Libertarian Party candidate Smythe DuVal, who works in medical technology, in the Nov. 6 general election.

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