Voters confront Georgia lawmakers over new touchscreen election system

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

Impassioned voters packed a hearing Tuesday to oppose a bill replacing Georgia's electronic voting machines, with many of them telling lawmakers that the state's proposed new voting system wouldn't be trustworthy.

State legislators listened to three hours of testimony during the first hearing on a bill to buy touchscreen machines that print ballots, a $150 million technology that would create a paper ballot that could be used to check the electronic count.

Members of the House subcommittee didn't vote Tuesday on House Bill 316 and will continue hearing from the public Wednesday.

Voters told state legislators that touchscreens are an expensive solution that won't solve concerns about election integrity. They want paper ballots bubbled in with a pen, saying a $30 million hand-marked paper ballot voting system is the best way to prevent tampering and hacking.

“Hand-marked paper ballots are the state of the art when it comes to secure voting systems,” said a voter, Elizabeth Shackelford 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?”

But election officials said the touchscreen voting machines, called ballot-marking devices, are accurate because they can help avoid errors that could be 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, 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.”

The heated debate over voting machines comes after last fall’s contentious election for governor that focused on voting rights and election security.

Voters struggled with long lines, broken voting machines, rejected ballots and skepticism from supporters of Democrat Stacey Abrams that the election was fair. Republican Brian Kemp, who was secretary of state at the time, said the election was accurate, but he too wants the state to replace its 17-year-old direct-recording electronic voting machines.

Critics of the touchscreen system, including cybersecurity experts, say the computer-printed ballots couldn’t be trusted.

Voters wouldn’t necessarily catch errors on their printed ballots, and voting information could be encoded in bar codes that humans wouldn’t be able to verify.

“There’s not a person here that can read a bar code,” said a voter, George Balbona. “You guys are boldly cramming this bill down our throat.”

About 55 percent of Georgia voters surveyed said in a poll by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last month that they prefer paper ballots filled in by voters over paper ballots filled in by a computer.

Georgia is one of the last four states that relies entirely on electronic voting machines without a paper backup.

A federal judge ruled last fall that Georgia's current voting machines put elections at risk, but she stopped short of ordering voters to switch to paper ballots so close to November's election.

State election officials and legislators have said the state should buy a replacement voting system this year, test-run it during municipal elections in the fall, and put it in place statewide in time for next year’s presidential primary elections.

The bill would also notify voters before their registrations are canceled, limit absentee ballot rejections because of apparent discrepancies in signatures, prevent changes in polling places 60 days before an election and create audit requirements before election results are certified.