Several election integrity organizations are unifying against a bill to change Georgia’s voting system, saying the legislation fails to ensure verifiable election results.
The legislation, Senate Bill 403, would replace Georgia's electronic voting machines with a system that uses paper to some extent.
But opponents of the measure say it doesn't truly commit to paper ballots for audits and recounts.
They're concerned that the bill allows the state to continue its heavy reliance on voting methods that could be vulnerable to hacking, and it gives county election supervisors the power to refuse to do paper recounts, even in close races.
"It's really important that Georgia gets this right," said Marian Schneider, the president of the Verified Voting Foundation, a Philadelphia-based organization whose mission is to safeguard elections. "The voting system that Georgia chooses has to have a voter-marked paper ballot that's retained by the system and is available for recount and audit."
Georgia is one of the last five states to rely entirely on electronic voting machines that don’t leave an independent paper backup. Roughly 70 percent of the country uses paper ballots.
Lawmakers say they want to leave the state's options open as elected officials decide on a replacement voting system during the next year. If the bill passes, Georgia's next secretary of state would choose the voting system by March 2019, and then the General Assembly would have to decide whether to fund it.
Under the voting system favored by election integrity groups, voters would make their choices by filling in bubbles on paper ballots.
Another option is a voting system with touchscreen machines that print out voters' choices along with a bar code for computer tabulation. Under both systems, voters would cast their ballots by feeding them into a ballot scanner.
State Rep. Ed Setzler, a sponsor of the bill, said it moves the state to a paper-based voting system without committing to a specific format.
“That's not the battle of the Legislature. That's the battle of the town hall meetings,” Setzler, R-Acworth, told a group of election integrity advocates last week. “This is the venue to make a kind of muscle movement to get us to paper, then you guys are in the game and then we get into rules and practices.”
Common Cause Georgia, a government accountability organization, is urging voters to contact legislative leaders to ask them to stop the voting machine bill.
“Georgia voters need a secure and accurate voting system,” said Sara Henderson, executive director of Common Cause Georgia. “This bill simply does not provide that security and would open up our voting process to possible corruption and hacking.”
Garland Favorito, who founded a group called Voter GA to seek secure elections, said the state is on the verge of making the same mistakes it made in 2002 when it switched to electronic voting machines.
The current version of the legislation “sets the stage for Georgia to repeat its voting system history,” Favorito said.
Mark Niesse covers voting rights and elections for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He also reports on the Georgia House of Representatives and government. He has been a reporter at the AJC since 2013 following a decade at The Associated Press in Atlanta, Honolulu and Montgomery, Ala.