Georgia election board votes down ballot secrecy proposal

Rule change would have allowed hand-marked paper ballots
Members of the State Election Board voted down a proposed rule change Tuesday that would have allowed Georgia voters to fill out ballots by hand instead of relying on bright touchscreens in polling places. The State Election Board is pictured here on Aug. 21, 2022. Chairman Bill Duffey resigned in September. Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez/AJC

Credit: Miguel Martinez/AJC

Members of the State Election Board voted down a proposed rule change Tuesday that would have allowed Georgia voters to fill out ballots by hand instead of relying on bright touchscreens in polling places. The State Election Board is pictured here on Aug. 21, 2022. Chairman Bill Duffey resigned in September. Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

The State Election Board unanimously rejected a proposed ballot secrecy rule Tuesday that would have allowed Georgia voters to fill out ballots by hand instead of relying on bright touchscreens in polling places.

The rule change would have permitted paper ballot voting stations along with touchscreens in polling places where there isn’t enough space to shield voters’ choices from eavesdropping.

Board members said they want to find other ways to protect voters’ privacy during elections in 2024, though they didn’t propose a solution. They said they’ll study the issue before their next meeting in two months.

Janice Johnston, a member of the board, said she’s uncomfortable with permitting hand-marked paper ballots and touchscreens at the same time.

“I have reservations about having two voting methods being performed constantly throughout an election, with the poll workers’ obligations to track both of those, to track the counts, the paper, the logistics,” Johnston said. “It doesn’t seem to add to the potential for orderliness in elections that we’re striving for.”

The rule proposal was sought by Marilyn Marks, executive director for the Coalition for Good Governance, an organization suing the state seeking hand-marked paper ballots.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

“The screens are so large, so bright, so upright that even walking to your particular voting station, it’s hard not to see how other people are voting,” Marks told the board. “The problem is undeniable. The law is clear. The solution is simple and inexpensive.”

The Georgia Constitution requires a secret ballot, and state law calls for “voting in absolute secrecy so that no person can see or know any other elector’s votes.”

The Georgia secretary of state’s office has advised counties to ensure voter privacy by positioning touchscreens, called ballot-marking devices, so that the screens face walls rather than voters waiting in line.

But that kind of positioning isn’t always feasible in small polling places with large numbers of touchscreens.

All in-person voters use the same voting method — the Dominion Voting Systems touchscreens and ballot printers purchased before the 2020 election.

“If we vote something down today, it doesn’t mean it’s not a serious issue or intend to look at it further,” said Ed Lindsey, a member of the board. “I do worry that this is a one-size-fits-all when there are other ways to fulfill voter secrecy requirements.”

Credit: Contributed

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Credit: Contributed

The board also voted down a similar proposal in February 2020 and said it could revisit the issue after the primary election, but never did.

Board members suggested that polling places could use larger dividers between touchscreens. They also asked whether screen protectors could be installed, but none has been approved by the government or manufactured by voting companies.

Curtains aren’t allowed because poll workers need to be able to ensure someone isn’t tampering with voting equipment.

The State Election Board previously upheld the universal in-person use of touchscreens when it ruled against Athens-Clarke County’s effort in March 2020 to switch to hand-marked paper ballots because of privacy concerns. A judge in Sumter County also rejected a lawsuit over the same issue the month beforehand.

The board also rejected two other rule proposals on Tuesday but plans to consider them further in the coming months.

One proposal would have required more thorough testing of voting machines before elections; the other would have set cybersecurity guidance for local election officials to decide when emergency paper ballots should be used.

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