03/02/2020 -- Lawrenceville, Georgia -- A voter uses the new electronic voting system to lock in her vote during early voting for the presidential primary at the Gwinnett Voter Registrations and Elections office building in Lawrenceville, Monday, March 2, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com
Photo: Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com

Athens discards new Georgia voting touchscreens over ballot secrecy

Election officials in Athens decided Tuesday to abandon Georgia’s new voting touchscreens because of concerns that they won’t keep ballots secret.

The Athens-Clarke County Board of Elections voted 3-2 to immediately switch to paper ballots bubbled in by pen, two days after early voting began.

It’s the first of Georgia’s 159 counties to reject the $104 million voting system, which combines touchscreens and printed-out paper ballots. Voters statewide have been using the touchscreens since early voting for the March 24 presidential primary started Monday.

Election integrity advocates say the bright, 21.5-inch touchscreens display voters’ choices for people within 30 feet to see.

03/02/2020 -- Lawrenceville, Georgia -- The new Georgia electronic voting systems are ready for use during early voting for the presidential primary at the Gwinnett Voter Registrations and Elections office building in Lawrenceville, Monday, March 2, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com

In its vote Tuesday, the board cited a provision of the Georgia Constitution that requires a secret ballot and state laws that allow for paper ballots when use of voting equipment is “impossible or impracticable.”

Another law mandates that every county use a uniform statewide voting system.

Elections Board Chairman Jesse Evans said the new voting system can’t comply with state and federal requirements for voters to be able to vote in private.

“The Athens-Clarke County Board of Elections is not legally permitted to use an electronic ballot marker that does not permit voting in absolute secrecy so that no person can see or know any other elector’s votes, except when he or she has assisted the elector in voting,” Evans said in a statement.

State election officials didn’t comment on the Athens vote.

The secretary of state’s office has recommended that county election officials protect ballot secrecy by turning touchscreens so they face the wall instead of voters waiting in line.

A memo from the Georgia secretary of state's office advises county election officials to position touchscreens so they're facing toward walls instead of toward voters waiting in line.

But repositioning the touchscreens, printers and ballot scanners can be difficult, especially in cramped voting locations.

Georgia has required the same voting system across the state since 2002, when the state converted to electronic voting. Before then, each county decided whether to use hand-marked paper ballots, punch cards or lever machines.

The new voting touchscreens are similar to the old ones, but they’re larger and display text more clearly. They’re partially surrounded by blue privacy screens, which leave the voting touchscreens exposed from some angles.

View and print: Guide to Georgia's new voting system

The Athens election will use hand-marked paper ballots with the same voting process that was tested in Cobb County in November.

Under an order from a federal judge, Cobb tested hand-marked paper ballots as a contingency plan in case the state’s touchscreen-and-printer voting system wasn’t ready in time for this month’s presidential primary.

Athens voters will bubble in their choices for president on a paper ballot, then feed it into the new voting system’s optical scanners, which can read both hand-marked and computer-printed ballots.

The Athens-Clarke County Board of Elections discussed voting equipment issues and privacy concerns during its meeting at Athens City Hall on Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020. From left (seated): Athens-Clarke County Elections Director Charlotte Sosebee, board member Willa Fambrough, Chairman Jesse Evans, board member Patricia Till and board member Charles Knapper. MARK NIESSE / MARK.NIESSE@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Across the state in South Georgia, an election integrity organization recently sued over ballot secrecy.

A Sumter County Superior Court judge last week denied an emergency motion to switch to hand-marked paper ballots.

He ruled that the Coalition for Good Governance hadn’t proven that it would be “impossible or impracticable” for voting machines to be arranged in a way that provides for a secret ballot.

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