Fair Fight Action founder Stacey Abrams testifies about voting rights in Georgia on Tuesday during a field hearing on voting rights and difficulties facing voters in front of the U.S. House subcommittee at the Carter Center in Atlanta. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

Voters, Abrams and U.S. Congress members demand accountable elections

Voting rights took center stage in Atlanta on Tuesday, when U.S. House Democrats and Stacey Abrams called for stronger voter protections while Georgia legislators pushed a proposal to buy new voting machines that critics said are inherently insecure.

The separate events at the Carter Center and the Capitol delved into problems that clouded last year’s election and ways to fix them before next year’s vote.

U.S. House Democrats held a hearing in the morning to probe allegations of voter suppression and build a case for more federal oversight of elections. Hours later, a Georgia House committee considered legislation that would switch the state from an electronic voting system to touchscreen machines that print ballots.

Both featured the archrivals in last year’s race for the state’s top job: Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, who as secretary of state shaped Georgia’s voting policies, and Abrams, the Democratic runner-up who accused Kemp of using his position to tilt the balance in his favor.

Kemp didn’t attend the events, but state lawmakers are considering the type of computerized voting machines recommended by a commission he created last year. The voting system, called ballot-marking devices, would use touchscreens and printers to spit out paper ballots that could be used to double-check election results.

Voters opposing the machines told state legislators Tuesday that they don’t trust the technology, saying Georgia should instead move to paper ballots bubbled in by hand.

“Hand-marked paper ballots are the state of the art when it comes to secure voting systems,” voter Elizabeth Shackelford said as she received a round of applause from the audience. “Security of our vote is extraordinarily paramount. … Why would you not go for the ultimate in transparency?”

2/19/19 - Atlanta - Elizabeth Shackelford speaks during public comment. The Governmental Affairs Elections Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Alan Powell, held the first hearing of House Bill 316, which would change the state's voting system. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

At the U.S. House hearing, Abrams and other voting rights activists criticized the uneven standards for counting provisional and absentee ballots, the cancellations of thousands of voter registrations from Georgians who didn’t participate in recent elections and waits at some polling places that stretched for hours.

“From issues with registration to ballot access to the counting of votes, Georgians faced a systemic breakdown of its electoral process,” said Abrams, who accused Kemp of unfairly using his position as Georgia’s top elections official to win the contest.

Georgia, she added, suffers from a voting system where “incompetence and malfeasance operate in tandem” to mask voter suppression through lax state oversight, outdated equipment and disproportionate enforcement of registration laws.

Kemp has vehemently denied accusations that he abused his office’s power and said he merely followed state laws designed to ensure that only eligible Georgia voters can cast ballots. He and other Republican officials were not asked to testify at the Carter Center hearing.

U.S. House Democrats want to use the testimony at the hearing to lay the legislative groundwork to bolster the Voting Rights Act, a 1965 law that was weakened six years ago by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

That decision directed Congress to build a “robust” legislative record before bringing back the Justice Department’s mandate to preclear certain voting changes in Georgia and other places with histories of voter suppression.

The half-dozen Democratic U.S. House members — no Republican lawmakers were at the event — heard from the Georgia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups who assailed the lack of a clear protocol for signature matches that resulted in a disproportionate number of absentee ballots being rejected last year.

And they listened to testimony from Stacey Hopkins, a Fulton County resident who decried the “postcard trick” that could have resulted in her name being removed from the rolls after she received a letter informing her she needed to confirm her voting address after moving in May 2016.

“I can’t really explain all the ranges of emotions I felt when I saw this notice,” she said, describing it as a trick because the postcard seeking confirmation of the new address looked innocuous, not like something that threatened to cost her right to vote. “It’s an abbreviated feeling of the stages of grief — except the one thing I couldn’t do is accept it.”

At both the Carter Center and the hearing at the state Capitol, voters said they distrust the kind of touchscreen voting machines that would print ballots.

2/19/19 - Atlanta - Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (left), seated next to Rep. Barry Fleming, who sponsored the bill, discusses the bill. The Governmental Affairs Elections Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Alan Powell, held the first hearing of House Bill 316, which would change the state's voting system. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com

A state House subcommittee didn’t vote on House Bill 316 on Tuesday after hearing three hours of testimony from voters who passionately opposed the proposed $150 million voting system.

But election officials said at the Capitol that ballot-marking devices help avoid errors introduced by voters marking their ballots by hand.

“Ballot-marking devices are best because they ensure more accuracy for the voters’ intent,” said Lynn Bailey, the elections director for Richmond County. “Voters stand a better chance of having their choices more accurately reflected on a ballot marked by a machine rather than by a human hand.”

Abrams said the new machines have the same problems as the 17-year-old system that Georgia now uses, including a lack of an “auditable trail” that breeds more distrust of the election system.

“When you have no faith in the system, you have no reason to participate in the system,” she said. “And that chilling effect should concern us all.”

The event was the second in a string of hearings across the nation, and U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge, the committee’s chairwoman, says the findings will help her panel build a case for more federal oversight of elections.

“We want to make sure that by the time we’re in 2020,” she said, “we won’t still be dealing with the issues we’re dealing with today.”

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