Voting companies show paper ballot options for Georgia

Six election companies offered a first look Thursday at voting systems they’re trying to sell to Georgia, all of which have some sort of paper ballot combined with tabulation computers.

All but one of the companies pitched touchscreen machines, similar to those currently in use, that print ballots as a backup to help ensure accurate results.

The remaining company proposed hand-marked paper ballots, where voters would fill in bubbles next to their choices and then feed those ballots into scanning machines.

Georgia’s elected officials are considering switching from the state’s 16-year-old electronic voting machines to a more secure system. Critics of the state’s current direct-recording electronic voting system say they’re concerned it could be hacked without any backstop.

The election companies demonstrated their products to the Secure, Accessible & Fair Elections (SAFE) Commission, a group of lawmakers, election directors and voters who are reviewing the state’s options before making a recommendation to the Georgia General Assembly for a replacement voting system.

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Hart InterCivic offered a look at its voting machines, which use paper ballots that don’t feature a bar code. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

About 100 people, including commission members, company representatives, lawmakers, security advocates and concerned citizens, turned out for the meeting at the Columbia County Exhibition Center.

Several of the voting systems relied on technology called ballot-marking devices.

Voters would make their choices on tablet-size or larger touchscreens. When they’re done, a paper ballot would be printed. Then voters would insert the ballot into an optical scanning machine for tabulation.

Georgia’s current election company, Election Systems & Software, emphasized that its voting system would be safe and accurate. Its ballot-marking devices were tested in Conyers last fall.

But voting integrity advocates say only verifiable, hand-marked paper ballots can be trusted. They say that having a computer fill out ballots and print them out along with bar codes to make them readable by tabulation computers could make them vulnerable to tampering.

“You aren’t just buying a piece of hardware. You need to know how the company is addressing security concerns,” said Kathy Rogers of ES&S. “Bar codes are fast and accurate.”

She said scanners that attempt to read printed ballots are more likely to make errors.

The company that proposed a hand-marked paper ballot, Clear Ballot, said it’s the most direct reflection of voters’ choices.

“Having an identical paper ballot for every voter that came into the polls is the best form of security that you could have,” said Bill Murphy, the director of sales for Clear Ballot.

Hart InterCivic proposed using printed ballots, but not with bar codes that include information about voters’ choices.

“We do not read a black box to determine the candidates and who you voted for,” said Dwayne Broxton, the regional sales director for Hart InterCivic.

Voters should be able to see a printed ballot and review it before it’s cast, said Wes Wagner of Unisyn Voting Solutions, which is also proposing a ballot-marking device for Georgia’s voting system.

“If they like their choices and they’re satisfied, their simply going to lay their ballot into a slot like a dollar bill into a soda machine,” Wagner said. “You can see it right there at the time of insertion.”

Most voting companies were reluctant to say how much their systems would cost the taxpayers of Georgia. Estimates start at $20 million and rise to more than $100 million. The expense of voting systems will become more clear when the state government solicits bids from companies early next year — and when legislators consider a bill to change the state’s voting system.

The voting machines from Smartmatic would read the words printed on the ballot, not bar codes.

“We’re doing optical character recognition on that tape and tabulating it,” said Ed Smith of Smartmatic.

The last company to present its voting technology would create a printed ballot that voters could see through a plastic screen, but they couldn’t touch it for up-close review.

“They can’t put their hands on it, but they can look at it through the window,” said Eric Coomer of Dominon Voting.

Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who created the SAFE Commission, said it’s clear to him that any replacement election system should include a paper record of votes.

“I like the idea of having a verifiable paper audit trail. I’ve said that many, many times,” said Kemp, a Republican running for governor against Democrat Stacey Abrams. “We’ll just let the commission and the Legislature see what’s available” before making a choice next year.

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