Georgia bill tries to remove bar codes from ballots

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Election officials warn of costs and feasibility

A bill introduced in the Georgia Senate would make the printed words on ballots the official vote instead of bar codes that are unreadable by the human eye.

State election officials urged caution before lawmakers change Georgia’s voting system and impose new costs on taxpayers.

The bill’s sponsor, Republican state Sen. Max Burns, said Thursday that he wants voters to know that their choices are counted correctly rather than having to trust votes encoded in bar codes, also called QR codes.

“The intent is to make sure that the voter has confidence that what their paper ballot indicates is what was actually counted,” Burns said of Senate Bill 189. “If you look at the QR code, that gives some people concern because they can’t read it.”

Georgia’s voting system relies on a combination of touchscreens and printers, which produce a sheet of paper that includes a bar code along with a human-readable list of the voter’s choices. Then, voters insert their ballots into optical scanning machines that read the bar code, which counts as the official vote.

Election security advocates have said that bar codes could be manipulated by hackers, though there’s no evidence that has ever happened.

But the state’s voting technology, purchased in 2019 for over $100 million, doesn’t include the ability to interpret printed text. Instead, optical scanners interpret bar codes from in-person ballots and bubbled-in choices from absentee ballots.

“The system that the Legislature directed to be acquired is serving Georgia voters well and we have seen rising confidence,” Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs said. “Any changes should look to enhance the voter experience and be responsible with both state and county tax dollars. The current proposal doesn’t take these into account and would cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.”

The secretary of state’s office has previously evaluated a different way of removing bar codes. Ballots could be printed with ovals next to candidate names, and then the ovals could be read by scanning machines.

Election officials haven’t moved forward with that idea as they review security, audits and costs associated with having to print a longer ballot.

The bill could soon receive a hearing. Its sponsor, Burns, is the chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee, which reviews election-related legislation.