New Georgia voting machines near final approval after passing Senate

State Sen. William Ligon, a Republican from Brunswick, speaks in favor of a new statewide voting system during a debate Wednesday on the Senate floor. The Senate then voted to approve the legislation, House Bill 316. BOB ANDRES /

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State Sen. William Ligon, a Republican from Brunswick, speaks in favor of a new statewide voting system during a debate Wednesday on the Senate floor. The Senate then voted to approve the legislation, House Bill 316. BOB ANDRES /

A far-reaching bill to change how Georgia’s 7 million registered voters cast their ballots is on the verge of clearing the Georgia General Assembly after the state Senate voted Wednesday for a new touchscreen-and-paper voting system, despite objections that it wouldn’t be any more secure from election tampering than what’s currently in use.

The Senate's 35-21 party-line vote sets up the $150 million election overhaul bill for final passage within days. The legislation is now ready for a final vote in the state House, which already passed a previous version of the bill. It would then head to Republican Gov. Brian Kemp for his signature.

During a three-hour debate, Republican senators endorsed the incoming voting technology, which uses computer printers to make paper ballots for voters to review before inserting them into scanning machines. The state’s current electronic voting machines don’t produce a paper ballot.

Democrats tried to stop the legislation, House Bill 316, calling it an expensive switch to a new voting method that will be just as vulnerable to hacking and computer errors as the state's current 17-year-old direct-recording electronic voting machines. They want paper ballots bubbled in by pen, saying they would create a voting record that's less susceptible to meddling.

The partisan divide over how to best safeguard democracy in Georgia comes after November's heated race for governor. Democrat Stacey Abrams, who opposes electronic voting, alleged that widespread problems with voting machines caused inaccurate counts, while Kemp said the state's voting system conclusively showed he won.

Members of both political parties agreed on one thing: Georgia should switch to a voting system that includes a paper ballot to check electronic vote counts. Georgia is one of just four states that relies entirely on electronic voting machines without a verifiable paper trail, along with Delaware, Louisiana and South Carolina.

Republican state Sen. William Ligon said the new voting machines, called ballot-marking devices, will be familiar to voters while providing a way to verify the accuracy of elections by checking electronic results against paper ballots. The new voting system would be put into place statewide in time for the the 2020 presidential primary election.

"Touchscreen ballot markers leave absolutely no room for doubt of voters' intent since voters make a clear choice with a touch of a button," said Ligon, who represents the Brunswick area. "This is a secure system."

Georgia would become the first state in the country to rely entirely on ballot-marking devices for every voter on Election Day. Some jurisdictions in 24 states use similar voting systems, often to assist voters with disabilities.

Democrats said the switch to ballot-marking devices is a costly waste of taxpayer money that will benefit well-connected voting companies at the expense of voters. They repeatedly pointed out that Kemp hired a lobbyist for voting company ES&S, former state Rep. Chuck Harper, as his deputy chief of staff.

And they said it was suspicious that voting companies’ estimates for the cost of ballot-marking devices, roughly $150 million to $200 million plus annual fees and additional equipment costs, didn’t come to light from the Secretary of State’s Office until Tuesday. When Kemp was secretary of state last year, his office refused to release the companies’ pricing information.

Georgia Public Broadcasting first reported the voting companies' estimates of their products' costs.

"We still need the people of Georgia to believe in the process, and right now they are unconvinced," said state Sen. Elena Parent, a Democrat from Atlanta. "It's risky to forge ahead to a place where there are dozens of unanswered questions."

A key disagreement was over whether paper ballots printed by a machine or paper ballots filled out by hand are more trustworthy.

Republican Senate Rules Chairman Jeff Mullis said he fears paper ballots completed with a pen could be used to manipulate election results. He suspected fraud occurred during his campaign for office in 1998, when initial results showed he had won by 23 votes but an additional 151 paper ballots appeared during a recount, handing the election to his opponent.

"Paper ballots are a way to fraud an election. I for one will not stand for that," said Mullis, who represents the Chickamauga area. "The ballot process should be the most secure place in our voting structure in America."

But Democratic Sen. Ed Harbison said technology-based voting systems are inherently flawed because they could be hacked.

"The most secure system is to return to the future, and that is hand-marked paper ballots read by an optical scanner," said Harbison, who represents the Columbus area. "This puts nothing between the voter and the ballots."

Several voters demonstrated against the legislation outside the Georgia Capitol, carrying moneybags and signs saying the new voting system "blows up GA budget." They said voting by hand would be less expensive.

They’re also concerned that along with the printed text of voters’ choices, paper ballots would include computer-readable bar codes that humans can’t authenticate.

“We don’t know who is going to take over if we have insecure voting,” said Liz Throop of DeKalb County. “We don’t want to cede power to the best hackers.”

The legislation goes far beyond voting machines, calling for many other broad changes in Georgia elections.

Election results would be audited starting with the November 2020 presidential election. Inactive voters’ registrations couldn’t be canceled for at least eight years. Polling places couldn’t be changed in the 60 days before a general or primary election.

If the legislation becomes law, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger will solicit competitive bids from voting system companies and then test ballot-marking devices during municipal elections in November.

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