Paper ballots pass Election Day test in Georgia

The results are in from this month's test run of a voting system that could bring paper ballots back to Georgia: It was easy to use and fast, but it would come with a high cost to taxpayers.

The trial of the touch screen-plus-paper ballot voting system "came off without a hitch" when it was tried during the Nov. 7 election for Conyers' mayor and City Council, Georgia Elections Director Chris Harvey said.

Though this voting system would be an improvement over Georgia's 15-year-old paperless machines, an election transparency group called Verified Voting says the state should stop using touch screens and return to the simple efficiency of filling out ballots with pens or pencils, like about 70 percent of the nation.

The voting system used for testing earlier this month during Conyers’ municipal elections started with voters using a touch screen that then produced a paper ballot. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

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Georgia's elected officials are considering replacing the state's electronic voting system with one that leaves a paper trail, a project that could cost well over $100 million to buy new machines for the state's 5.4 million registered voters.

“The preliminary indication we’ve gotten from voters is that they’ve liked it,” Harvey said of the voting system tested in Conyers. “It’s very similar to what they’re already using. It does produce a paper form, but voters in Georgia are used to interacting with a touch screen.”

During the trial run, voters picked their candidates on touch-screen machines, which then printed out a filled-in paper ballot that reflected their choices. Then voters could review their paper ballots for accuracy before feeding them into a trash can-shaped machine, which scanned the ballots, counted them and deposited them into a locked container.

If Georgia buys this type of system, it would be the first time it would be implemented statewide anywhere in the nation.

Because the touch screens only print out ballots, they’re little more than “a very expensive pencil,” said Susan Greenhalgh, the vice president of programs for Verified Voting.

Jeb Cameron with Election Systems & Software demonstrates  paper-ballot voting machines at the Rockdale County Board of Elections in Conyers on Sept. 5, 2017. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

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By comparison, she said an election system that requires voters to mark ballots by hand before they’re scanned by a machine could cost Georgians as little as $30 million, saving tens of millions of dollars.

“It would be unnecessarily costly for the state to spend all that money,” she said. “If you’re physically marking a ballot, there’s a pretty good chance it will be counted as the voter intended.”

Still, any paper-based voting system would be more accountable than Georgia’s current election machines because paper ballots could be checked to ensure accurate results, she said.

In the Conyers test, 97 percent of voters surveyed said they were satisfied with the system, Rockdale County Elections Supervisor Cynthia Welch said. More than 1,000 people voted in municipal elections at two precincts. The pilot project was paid for by Georgia's current voting system vendor, Election Systems & Software, which provided its ExpressVote touch screens and DS200 tabulation machines.

“Voters were very familiar with touch screens,” Welch said. “The key is going to be to make sure that voters understand the ExpressVote only marks the ballot. It then needs to be inserted into the tabulator to count the ballot.”

Because votes were counted at one tabulation machine rather than at each touch screen terminal, results were reported more quickly on election night. Rockdale counted all its ballots by about 8 p.m., about one hour after polls closed, which is roughly 15 to 25 minutes faster than normal, Welch said.

She’s preparing a report that will recommend moving all of Georgia toward a system with a voter-verified paper ballot.

State officials will have to decide what type of voting system is best as it considers options, said Kathy Rogers, the senior vice president of government relations for ES&S. Continuing to rely on touch screens would be easy for voters using Georgia’s current system.

“That gives them an experience similar to what they have today,” Rogers said. “You never have to worry about how the voter intended to vote.”

Georgia’s current voting system was considered state-of-the-art when it was installed statewide in 2002 in the wake of the presidential race between Georgia W. Bush and Al Gore, which Bush won when the U.S. Supreme Court stopped a recount of contested paper punch-card ballots in Florida.

But today, many election experts consider Georgia’s electronic-only voting system to be vulnerable to security risks and buggy software.

Replacing election systems in Georgia will likely take several years. The state might conduct additional test runs of paper-based voting systems in upcoming elections, Harvey said.

Georgia’s potential new voting system

A test run of a new voting system used a combination of touch screens and paper ballots for the city of Conyers’ elections this month. Here’s how it works:

1. Voters pick their candidates by tapping on an electronic machine.

2. The machine prints a paper ballot that shows the candidates selected. This machine doesn’t count votes.

3. Voters then walk their ballots to a tabulation machine. They insert ballots into this trash can-shaped machine, which scans and counts them. The paper ballots are deposited into a locked container as proof of their votes.