12/05/2017, Atlanta, GA, - Atlanta residents cast their vote for the next Atlanta mayor during the run-off election at Fickett Elementary School, Tuesday, December 5, 2017. Candidates Keisha Lance Bottoms and Mary Norwood are on the runoff ticket for the city’s next mayor. The winner of the election will be the second woman in history to lead the city of Atlanta. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Plan to scrap Georgia’s electronic voting machines moves forward

A proposal to replace Georgia’s electronic voting machines passed a subcommittee Tuesday despite concerns that the legislation doesn’t go far enough to safeguard elections.

The measure calls for the state to begin using a new voting system with paper ballots in time for the 2020 presidential election.

State lawmakers say the state’s all-digital election system, in use since 2002, is outdated and needs to be scrapped after tech experts exposed security vulnerabilities last year in the same type of voting machines as those used in Georgia.

The House Special Subcommittee on Voting Technology voted 2-1 on Tuesday to approve Senate Bill 403. If the legislation is approved by the House Governmental Affairs Committee on Wednesday, it could soon receive final votes in the full House of Representatives and Senate, which already passed a previous version of the bill.

Georgia is one of five states that rely entirely on direct-recording electronic voting machines without a paper backup. About 70 percent of the nation uses paper ballots.

State Rep. Ed Setzler speaks about replacing Georgia’s voting system during a Feb. 13 meeting of the Governmental Affairs Special Subcommittee on Voting Technology. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“The policy of our state moving forward will be a manual paper ballot that’s recountable, retallyable by hand, and that ballot will be the primary ballot if there’s a discrepancy,” said state Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth. “Let me be real clear: The paper is the real ballot.”

The voting bill requires the state to stop using electronic machines, but it doesn’t say what they’d be replaced with.

Options for the state’s next voting system include pen-and-paper ballots or touch-screen machines that would print out ballots for voters to review. Under both systems, voters would feed their paper ballots into tabulation computers.

Critics of the voting legislation say the touch-screen machines, which the state tested during a Conyers election in November, are vulnerable to tampering because they use bar codes for tabulation purposes. Voters wouldn’t be able to tell whether the bar codes matched the candidates they chose, which would also be printed on the ballot.

“What I want is a paper ballot that I can look at, that doesn’t have additional coding on it,” Susan Cannell, a Cobb County voter, said during testimony to the subcommittee. “There’s this layer of obscurity between what I said on my ballot and how it’s counted.”

There’s no evidence hackers have penetrated voting machines in Georgia.

Marian Schneider, the president of the Verified Voting Foundation, said the legislation needs to be clarified to ensure that “human readable ballots” — not bar codes — are the official ballot. The current version of the bill could be interpreted as saying that the bar codes are official because they’re part of the paper ballot.

A sample ballot shows how bar codes and voter choices would be displayed using the ExpressVote system, which was tested in a Conyers election in November. The ExpressVote system combines touch screens and paper ballots to record voters’ choices. The Georgia General Assembly is considering legislation, Senate Bill 403, that would replace the state’s voting system.

“A bar code is insecure because it’s generated by software,” Schneider said. “A software-created process can be altered by software. Those software-generated items should not control in the case of a discrepancy.”

But Setzler, who sponsored a similar version of legislation, said the paper ballots would be used to verify the accuracy of the vote count when needed.

The Georgia State Election Board would create rules for audits and recounts, including physical inspection of ballots, he said.

However, the legislation gives county election superintendents discretion over whether to conduct manual or electronic recounts.

The latest version of SB 403 would require the state to solicit bids from voting companies by Sept. 15.

Georgia’s next secretary of state, who will take office in January, would decide which company and voting technology to use by March 15, 2019.

The Georgia General Assembly would then have to vote to pay for the statewide voting system, which could cost $35 million or more for a paper-based system and well over $100 million for a touch-screen-and-paper system.

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